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Swiss CO2 emissions: Small country, big footprint

Orderly, good at recycling, great for train travel: in many people’s minds, Switzerland’s reputation is clean and wholesome against a backdrop of jaw-dropping natural beauty. Yet the much-lauded Swiss quality of life has a dark side – namely levels of consumerism and convenience that jack up the national carbon footprint. Here’s a look at the key factors driving CO2 emissions.

This content was published on October 29, 2021 - 15:39
Corinna Staffe (illustration)

Waste

If everyone lived like the Swiss, the world population would need three planets to supply enough natural resources. While the official Earth Overshoot Day falls at the end of July, Switzerland uses up its resource quota by early May. 

“Due to its comparatively high consumption level, Switzerland is one of the countries with disproportionately high environmental footprints per capita,” wrote Karine Siegwart, deputy director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, in a recent studyExternal link.

Switzerland’s large footprint is partly driven by all the goods it imports. If emissions generated via imports are counted, the footprint of each resident of Switzerland is 14 tonnes of CO2 per year. In comparison, the global average is six tonnes.

Per capita, Swiss residents throw away more rubbish than most other Europeans.

“The rampant selfishness of our society manifests itself in the form of rubbish and its disposal. It’s a sign of our throwaway society,” finds Andy Werren, a tour guide at the Forsthaus power plant in Bern, which generates electricity and heat using wood, natural gas and garbage. 

Even if there are systems in place to recycle items like beverage containers, much of the plastic packaging is difficult or impossible to recycle. Facilities vary by region and canton, and the price of household waste disposal is generally low enough to reduce the incentive to recycle.

While much of Europe has done away with single-use plastics, Switzerland has no plans to enforce a similar ban. However, some major Swiss retailers have voluntarily decided to stop selling or giving away items like plastic straws and cutlery.

Mobility

Switzerland has a dense rail network. Its passengers are champions in terms of the number of trips and the distances travelled per year. 

However, commuting by car is still widespread. More than half of commuters drive to work rather than taking public transportation, cycling or walking. Road transport – including buses, service and delivery vehicles – accounts for about 40% of COgas emissions in Switzerland. 

Prior to the pandemic, the average Swiss flew about 9,000km per year, twice as much as 20 years ago. The number of air travelers has increased in recent years. Pre-Covid-19, flying accounted for 10% of Swiss CO2 emissions, considerably more than the global figure of 2.5%. 

“On average, the Swiss population flies three times more often than European citizens, drives the largest cars in Europe and is one of the largest producers of waste in the world,” said WWF in a statementExternal link on Switzerland hitting its overshoot day months ahead of the world average: in May rather than July or August.

But there is growing public pressure to curb air travel including a debate over whether there should be a carbon tax on air tickets. Some say airfare itself should be more expensive to discourage people from using cheap tickets as an excuse for a short getaway. 

Services like myclimateExternal link offer guilt-ridden polluters the possibility to donate to offset their carbon footprint. 

“Flying is not a human right,” says myclimate CEO Stephen Neff, “It is a luxury that we gave gotten used to in Switzerland and other countries.” 

With the goal of achieving zero net emissions by 2050, the Swiss government has adopted CO2 reduction measures in the transport, construction and industrial sectors. But in May 2020, the Swiss parliament approved a credit of nearly CHF2 billion ($2 billion) to prop up SWISS and other aviation companies affected by the coronavirus crisis.

In June 2021, Swiss voters had the chance to adopt a law to curb greenhouse gases. The law, part of Switzerland’s strategy to abide by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, was rejected by 51.6% of voters.

“The ‘No’ has repercussions,” said Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga. “Now it will be difficult to achieve the climate targets.” In line with the Paris accord, Switzerland aims to be climate neutral by 2050.

Housing

Switzerland uses more heating oil than other European countries and is above average when it comes to heat loss. One reason is that many of the buildings are relatively old, and there is a widespread reluctance to invest in renovations. 

At the same time, much of new construction in Switzerland consists of suburban single- and two-family homes. Their remote location often results in their tenants relying on cars to get around. 

The construction boom is driven to a large extent by corporate investors. They are betting on the real estate market to heat up further. That means that many of these houses remain empty for now – resulting in a waste of building materials and a loss of greenspace.  

The effects and the fight

In landlocked Switzerland temperatures are rising faster than in regions which benefit from the ocean’s cooling effect. The first video in our two-part series shows how climate change is affecting the Swiss landscape, economy and people.

Part two of our climate video series looks at how the country is going about reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

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