Climate Change: Environmental and Political Effects in Switzerland

The Swiss take climate change very seriously. Both public and private institutions are undertaking extensive programs and initiatives to monitor, and reverse the effects of, rising temperatures.

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Some measures are practical and hands on, others are far-reaching political decisions made by the public in Switzerland’s direct-democracy referenda. The year 2017 has been an especially interesting one in that regard.

The Swiss Fight Against Climate Change

Switzerland has been on the forefront of reducing CO2 emissions—the greenhouse gas that many believe is the cause of warmer temperatures around the world.

The Energy Agency for Business has more than 3,000 member companies, which account for nearly half of CO2 emissions in the Swiss economy. Emission targets are set by incentives: Whenever a company reaches its low-emission target, its CO2 tax is refunded. The Swiss Business Federation believes this system should be a model for the rest of the world. Switzerland itself is only responsible for 0.14 percent of global CO2 emissions.

When it comes to renewable energy sources, Switzerland has long relied on hydropower. Today, newer sources—solar power, wind power, wood, biomass, geothermal energy, and ambient heat—are playing an increasingly important role in Switzerland’s “energy mix.” Some of these alternative energy sources, however, will take about 30 years to develop fully.

In 2015, Switzerland became the first country to make a pledge for the Paris Agreement, promising to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by the year 2030. At a U.N. climate summit in 2014, Swiss Re pledged $10 billion in insurance protection and “expertise to help nations strengthen climate resilience by 2020.”

Switzerland’s Nuclear Exit

The Swiss government and Swiss business have demonstrated their dedication to international climate change agreements, backing up that dedication with large sums of money. The Swiss public has shown wide-ranging support of these measures.

At the same time, the Swiss government developed a proposal—Energy Strategy 2050—to ban the building of any new nuclear power plants, with plans to phase out the five existing ones. In a referendum on May 21, 2017, nearly 60 percent of Swiss voters cast their ballots for this ban. More than one third of Switzerland’s electricity comes from the five existing nuclear reactors, the first of which is to be shut down in 2019. (There is no exact schedule yet for the remaining phase out.) The anti-nuclear-power mood in Switzerland seems to mirror that in Germany—caused by safety concerns after Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

The government plan includes heavy subsidies for renewable energy sources. Still, the nuclear ban and phase out is not without critics, who warn of starkly rising energy costs and risks to energy security.

Switzerland’s Climate Forecast 

Between 1864 and 2010, the average temperature in Switzerland rose by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Climate-change scenarios predict at least a similar level of warming by the end of the 21st century—which would be accompanied by an 8 percent to 10 percent reduction in summertime rain.

In an unprecedented project, more than 20 research groups across Switzerland spent two years studying the effects of climate change on the country in seven areas: (1) glaciers, (2) water balance, (3) woods, (4) biodiversity, (5) agriculture, (6) health, and (7) energy. (There is considerable overlap among these seven areas: For instance, glacier melt affects river flow; diversity of species is related to forest composition; and surface and groundwater changes are relevant to health considerations.)

The project was initiated and coordinated by the Oeschger Centre at the University of Bern, and was financially supported by Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU) and MeteoSchweiz, the Federal Office for Meteorology and Climatology.

The results of this study—which confirmed existing knowledge about the consequences of climate change as well as providing new findings—are presented in the report CH2014-Impacts.” They include:

  • About 90 percent of the Swiss glaciers will disappear by the end of this century.
    • Around half of current glacial ice will already have melted by 2035.
    • Mountain ski resorts face shorter tourist seasons, though artificial snow can replace much natural snow. Snowmaking could even allow high-elevation resorts to become more competitive.
  • Differentiated developments for forests:
    • In low locations (in inner-alpine valleys) that are already very dry, forests react very sensitively, even to just small additional increases in temperature.
    • The tree population will come under increased attack from bark beetles, and is already threatened by weaker growth—which reduces the protective effect against avalanches and rock slides.
  • There is a positive development along the alpine tree line, where tree growth is increasing, which aids the protective effect (against avalanches and rock slides), as well as allowing more wood production and carbon storage.
  • In many cases, forests will not show serious changes until the end of this century. (Forest maintenance should be adjusted now, in accordance with the expected long-term developments.)
  • There are major regional differences: Southern Switzerland has been identified as a “hot spot.” The southern-most canton of Ticino in particular will soon face hot phases with “tropical nights” that could last up to two months. Cows would then be threatened by heat stress, and the dryness would be a problem for the forests.
    • The sensitive southern part of Switzerland has to expect significant effects of climate change—even with global climate-protection measures.
    • There is better news for the Swiss plateau: With climate policies, positive effects are expected, for example for wine-growing, where warmer conditions will allow cultivation of more grape varieties.
  • In general, however, the researchers expect negative consequences to be dominant, for example, stronger fluctuations in river outflows, and higher groundwater temperatures, with possibly negative effects on the quality of drinking water.
  • The researchers also expect changes in the composition of bird and plant life, and conditions that will endanger the survival of the spruce and beech, which are now the most-widespread trees in the midland.

How Switzerland Must Adapt

The researchers state that, even with climate-protection measures, the Swiss will have to adapt, including:

  • Agriculture management, which includes pest control.
  • Water supply management. Due to the changing stream flow in rivers, the Swiss will need to be even more economical with water use.
  • Forest management will need to include promotion of biodiversity.

Adaptive measures and improved management alone will not be enough, however, the researchers caution, and stress that reduction of greenhouse gas emissions remains a top priority. The bottom line: Adaptation and climate protection must go hand in hand. If climate change can be limited, adapting to its consequences will be easier and less costly.

The Swiss Economy and Climate Change Around the World

Since Switzerland’s economy is so intertwined with economies around the world, other researchers have voiced concern over the effects of climate change far beyond Switzerland: Should climate change lead to negative economic consequences in other regions of the world, it is to be expected that Switzerland will suffer economic losses as well. Under one model, which uses today’s levels of inter-connectedness and currently anticipated climate change levels, Swiss exports could decline between 1.4 percent and 2.5 percent by 2050, thereby lowering Swiss GDP between 0.5 percent and 0.8 percent.

Swiss imports of agricultural animal feed, oil, and materials for the metal industry come largely from strongly climate-change endangered countries. 

In the service sector, the financial sector might suffer due to market forces. The insurance sector on the other hand, is more likely to profit from climate change, since demand for reinsurance services is likely to rise. Significant effects are expected on capital markets.

Despite a general Swiss government and business consensus on fighting climate change, different priorities are starting to make themselves known.

Heated debates are sure to be ahead around the globe. Stay tuned.

Additional resources:

Five takeaways from the Swiss nuclear referendum, Swissinfo.ch

The Swiss campaign for the nuclear ban, Swissinfo.ch

What it takes to dismantle a nuclear power plant, Swissinfo.ch

Every aspect of climate change in Switzerland, ClimateChangePost

European Climate Adaptation Platform, European Union