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on the environment


Country profile (Switzerland)

What distinguishes the country?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Swiss Confederation: Federal state (Confoederatio Helvetica - CH)

System of government: Federal republic consisting of 26 cantons with Bern as the capital

Main cities: Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne

Population: 7,785,800 (31 December 2009)

Estimated population: in 2015: 8,102,300; in 2025: 8,561,400; in 2050: 8,979,000 (2010 projections)

Population density: 193/km2 as a national average, close to 2000/km2 in city centres, 500-1000/km2 in cities and villages and less than 50/km2 in the rest of the country

Official languages: German (63.7 % total population share, in the north, east and centre of the country), French (20.4 %, in the west), Italian (6.5 %, in the south), Romansh (0.5 %, in the south-eastern canton of Graubünden), other: 9 %

Member of: UN, the Council of Europe, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), part of the Schengen agreement


Geography and Climate

Located in the middle of Western Europe, Switzerland is bordered by Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein. Extending across the north and south side of the Alps, it encompasses great diversity of landscapes and climates on a limited area of 41 290 km2. It is a landlocked country whose territory contains three basic topographical areas: the Swiss Alps in the south (60 % of the country's total area), the Jura Mountains in the northwest (10 %) and the Central Plateau in between (30 %). The Alps are a high mountain range running across the centre-south of the country. Among the high valleys of the Swiss Alps numerous glaciers are found, totalling an area of 3000 square kilometres. From these the headwaters of several major European rivers such as the Rhine, Rhone, Inn, Aare and Ticino flow into the largest Swiss lakes such as Lake Geneva (Lac Léman), Lake Zurich, Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Constance.

About a hundred of Switzerland's mountain peaks are close to or higher than 4000 metres. At 4634 m, the Dufourspitze is the highest, although the Matterhorn (4478 m) is probably more famous. Both are located within the Pennine Alps in the canton of Valais. The section of the Bernese Alps above the deep glacial Lauterbrunnen valley, containing 72 waterfalls, is also well known for the Jungfrau (4158 m) and Eiger (3970 m), and for the many picturesque valleys in the region. In the southeast the long Engadin Valley, encompassing the St-Moritz area in canton Graubünden, is also well known; the highest peak in the neighbouring Bernina Alps is Piz Bernina (4049 m). The more populous northern part of the country, the Central Plateau, has broader open and hilly landscapes. Partly forested and partly with open pastures, usually with dairy farming or vegetables and fruit fields, the Central Plateau is still hilly. There are large lakes here and the largest Swiss cities are in this area of the country.

Switzerland has a varied and transitional climate. It is generally temperate, but can vary greatly between localities, from glacial conditions on the mountaintops to the near Mediterranean climate at Switzerland's southern tip. Summers tend to be warm and humid at times with periodic rainfall, so they are ideal for pastures and grazing. The winters in the mountains have alternating sunshine and snowfall (the permanent snow line is at 3600 m in the south of the Alpine region and 3000 m in the north), while the lower lands tend to be more cloudy and foggy in winter. A weather phenomenon known as the föhn can occur at all times of the year. Precipitation increases with altitude and is generally high, with an average of 1456 mm annually over the country as a whole. The driest conditions persist in the southern valleys of Valais. Graubünden also tends to be drier in climate and slightly colder, yet with plentiful snow in winter. The wettest conditions persist in the high Alps and in the Ticino canton which has much sun yet heavy bursts of rain. Eastern Switzerland tends to be colder than the western part of the country, yet in the high mountains cold spells can occur at any time of the year. Precipitation tends to be spread evenly throughout the year, with minor variations across the seasons depending on locale.

Swiss maps:

Swiss climate:

Swiss hydrological data:

Swiss glacier monitoring network:


Map of Switzerland

Map of Switzerland

Topography of Switzerland


Topography of Switzerland


Environmental Governance

The Swiss Confederation protects the population from excessive exposure to noise, harmful substances and organisms, non-ionising radiation and natural hazards through its environmental and resources policy. At the same time it has a duty to conserve natural resources such as land, water, air, forest, climate and biodiversity for the future, applying the precautionary principle if necessary, and must rectify serious damage.

In Switzerland, environment affairs are the responsibility of the Federal Department (Ministry) of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC). The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) is responsible for implementing environmental policy. Other offices within DETEC – such as the Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE) and the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) – handle some specific aspects of environmental policy.

The FOEN is the federal government’s centre of environmental expertise and pursues the following goals:

  • long-term preservation and sustainable use of natural resources (land, water, forests, air, climate, biological and landscape diversity) and remediation of damage;

  • protection of the public against excessive pollution (noise, harmful organisms and substances, non-ionising radiation, wastes, contaminated land and major incidents);

  • protection of people and significant assets against hydrological and geological hazards (flooding, earthquakes, avalanches, landslides, erosion and rockfalls).

Switzerland's environmental policy, and therefore the FOEN, covers four key topic areas: safety, health, natural diversity and means of production. In order to achieve these goals, FOEN has been assigned the following responsibilities related to environmental monitoring and reporting:

  • environmental monitoring, to provide a sound basis for the management of resources;

  • environmental reporting, to provide information on the state of the environment and on the appropriate use and protection of natural resources.

Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications DETEC:

Federal Office for the Environment FOEN:

Swiss Environmental Law:



Despite the ravages of the Spanish Flu in 1918 and the exodus prompted by the economic recession in the mid-1970s, the Swiss population has more than doubled since the start of the 20th century: from 3.3 million (in 1900) to 7.8 million (in 2009). Population growth was highest between 1961 and 1963 when average annual population growth rates were around 2.4 %. Between 1980 and 2008, the average of the annual growth rates was 0.7 %. In 2009, the rate was 1.1 % (90 % of which was due to net migration), making Switzerland one of the most dynamic countries in Europe in terms of population growth. The Swiss population concentrates mostly on the Plateau, where the largest cities are to be found. Among them are the two economic centres of Zurich and Geneva.

Swiss population statistics and maps:



Switzerland has a stable and modern economy, and one of the most globalised ones in the world. According to the World Bank country classification, Switzerland belongs to the group of high-income OECD members with a gross national income per capita of 65 330 USD in 2008. The Swiss franc remains one of the world's strongest currencies with the lowest inflation rate. The Swiss economy is based on a highly qualified labour force performing highly skilled work. The main economic activities include pharmaceuticals/chemicals, machinery, instruments, and financial services. The service sector now employs the greatest number of people. The breakdown of employment by economic sector is: Agriculture, forestry and fishery: 4 %; Industry and commerce: 23 %; Services: 73 %.

Small and medium-sized enterprises play a prominent role in Switzerland. They account for 63 % of employment and for 99 % of enterprises. Most of the people working in Switzerland are employed by small and medium-sized enterprises, which play an extremely important role in the Swiss economy. The category of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is made up of enterprises which employ fewer than 250 persons and which have an annual turnover not exceeding EUR 50 million, and/or an annual balance sheet total not exceeding EUR 43 million. The Swiss are concerned that economic activity should have as little impact as possible on the environment. Switzerland's energy, transport, agriculture and spatial planning policies aim to be environmentally friendly.

The age of unlimited economic growth in Switzerland is over. Fear of unemployment is currently one of the main concerns of the Swiss although unemployment is low in international comparison. In recent years the unemployment rate went down from 3.9 % in 2004 to 2.6 % in 2008. It then increased as a consequence of the global economic crisis and probably reached a peak in January 2010 at 4.5 %. The unemployment rate rose from a low of 1.7 % in June 2000 to a peak of 4.4 % in December 2009.

National economy:

Industry and services:

Agriculture, forestry:

Economic situation:

What have been the major societal developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Switzerland is a member of the Council of Europe and was a founding member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). In 2002, Switzerland acceded to the United Nations, intensifying the country’s involvement in all UN environmental activities, in particular in the implementation of measures to strengthen international environmental governance.  

Switzerland voted against membership in the European Economic Area in a referendum in December 1992 and has since maintained and developed its relationships with the European Union (EU) and European countries through bilateral agreements. The government has established an Integration Office under the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Economic Affairs. To minimise the negative consequences of Switzerland's isolation from the rest of Europe, Bern and Brussels have signed seven bilateral agreements. A first series of agreements, including the free movement of persons, took effect in 2001. A second series was signed in 2004 and has since been ratified, including the Schengen Treaty and an agreement on the environment. Switzerland joined the European Environment Agency in 2006.



The global crisis will have a lasting impact on the Swiss economy. Despite the recession, Switzerland has weathered the crisis better than other OECD economies. This has had several reasons: its exports of goods are less sensitive to the business cycle, domestic credit markets are resilient, and the country does not have a marked housing cycle. After a period of strong expansion of employment, unemployment is now on the rise; some of the increase resulting from the crisis may persist.



In the second half of the 20th century, Switzerland experienced acute environmental problems: waste tips, extreme pollution of air and water bodies etc. Many of these problems have since been solved by the ambitious environmental policies promoted by the Confederation and implemented by the cantons and municipalities. They have been based on a prescriptive approach, sustained government funding and active public opinion that is deeply concerned by the environment. These policies have yielded remarkable results in combating pollution and natural hazards. More recently, environmental policies have focused on partnerships with business and civil society, on application of the polluter-pays principle and on prevention.

There has been a steady decline with regard to biodiversity, nature and landscapes. Switzerland's ecosystems can be particularly fragile because of the many delicate valleys separated by high mountains, often forming unique ecologies. The climatic, geological and topographical conditions of the alpine region make for a very fragile ecosystem that is particularly sensitive to climate change.


What are the main drivers of environmental pressures?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Switzerland’s environment is subject to severe pressures (pollution, extraction of natural resources, spatial restructuring), due in particular to industry, agriculture, transport, households and tourism. These pressures stem from very high population densities, high levels of economic activity and high incomes. Industry, farming, transport and leisure activities compete for space with residential areas.

The mountain environment is especially fragile. Climate change brings the threat of landslides and flooding, as well as threatening the important tourism industry.



Between 1990 and 2008, Switzerland’s total consumption of resources rose by nearly 14 %. There have been increases not only in imports but also in the associated environmental impacts abroad. To conserve natural resources, there is a need for a cross-sectoral policy of sustainable resource management.



In recent years, energy consumption in Switzerland has risen continuously. Around 70 % of the final energy consumed is produced from fossil fuels, which have to be imported. To address this issue, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy aims, between 2010 and 2020, to reduce the consumption of fossil-based energy by 20 % and to increase the proportion of renewables by 50 %.



Private cars remain the most popular means of transport in Switzerland. However, they also account for 70 % of transport-related CO2 emissions. Only some of the costs generated by transport are borne by those responsible. The remainder, known as external costs, is estimated at CHF 8.5 billion for 2005.


Industry and Production

Although industry has taken numerous measures to protect the environment, it has not been possible to eliminate all adverse impacts. Knowledge of various chemical products remains limited, and the remediation of landfills formerly used for hazardous waste disposal will cost over CHF one billion.


Households and consumption

In 2009, Switzerland’s municipal solid waste arisings amounted to 700 kg per person, of which more than the half was collected separately and recycled. Household total final consumption spending increased by 28 % between 1990 and 2008 in real terms, roughly in line with the increase of gross domestic product in real terms. Over the same period, household water and energy consumption remained relatively stable.



Agriculture performs a variety of functions, the most important of which is food production. Agricultural activities put pressure on the environment and have an impact on biodiversity, air, soil, water and the landscape. Agricultural policy is faced with the dual challenge of mitigating the environmental impacts whilst improving the competitiveness of Swiss agriculture.



Tourism is an important sector of the Swiss economy: in many peripheral areas it constitutes the mainstay of income. Efforts are being made on various fronts to maintain access to attractive local recreational spaces and tourist regions. These include reducing the environmental impact of infrastructure, and improving visitor management, knowledge transfer, awareness raising and the design of tourism offerings.


Land use

Switzerland lost eleven ha of productive land per day, i.e. nearly one m2 per second, over the last 20 years of the 20th century. About two-thirds of this land is used for residential and infrastructure purposes, mostly on the Central Plateau. The remaining third consists mainly of grassland and pasture left to grow naturally, on which forests are gradually encroaching.

What are the foreseen developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Switzerland is becoming increasingly urban and its population is increasingly mobile. The major cities (Zurich, Geneva, Basel) are growing at the expense of the peripheral areas, thus causing regional imbalance. Some regions now have what amounts to a recreational function (tourism areas in the Alps).These changes aggravate pressure on the environment, as well as demand for resources such as clean air, water, land, tranquility and energy. Over the next 15 years, the challenge for resource policy will be to overcome the apparent contradiction between environmental protection and the economy, in order to conserve and use natural resources in a sustainable fashion. The priorities are now the long-term conservation and use of the natural basis of life, including air, water, soil, forest, quiet residential areas and diversified landscapes.


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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