Briefly explained: Swiss energy and climate policy

Net-zero target, incentive tax, cloak decree, solar offensive: Terms of the Swiss energy and climate policy appear frequently in the public discussion. A classification of the most important goals and measures.

Climate change and the energy crisis automatically bring climate and energy policy into focus. Linked to this are other environmental areas such as species protection and the circular economy. Regarding this, there is a great need for adaptation in Switzerland. Because in a global comparison, we consume a lot of resources per person and emit a lot of greenhouse gases.

From the Paris Climate Agreement to the Glacier Initiative

Swiss climate policy is derived from the Paris Climate Agreement. It was adopted by 195 countries in 2015. The aim of this climate agreement is to limit the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees, if possible to a maximum of 1.5 degrees. To achieve this, no more net greenhouse gases may be emitted by around 2050. The target is therefore also referred to as the net zero target.

This means that because not all CO2 emissions can be avoided, the remaining part must be removed from the atmosphere. This can be done through natural processes such as reforestation (growing trees store CO2) or technical measures (capturing CO2 from the air). Switzerland has put the agreement into force, and the Federal Council has anchored the net zero target is 2050 in the long-term climate strategy.

The Climate Protection Act specifies the net zero target. Voters approved the law in the summer of 2023. The National Council and Council of States had previously agreed on this in the form of an indirect counter-proposal to the glacier initiative. The following measures are planned to achieve the climate target:

- 2 billion Swiss francs for the replacement of heating systems that run on oil or gas

- 1.2 billion francs to promote new technologies

Back and forth about the CO2 Act

Other important measures to reduce greenhouse gases are enshrined in the CO2 Act. This came into force in 2000 and has been amended several times since then. It sets the targets for CO2 reduction by 2020. The last revision was narrowly rejected by the people in 2021.

Parliament is currently negotiating a new version to enshrine the reduction targets (by 2030) and climate protection measures in law.


The CO2 Act: current measures

- CO2 tax on heating oil, natural gas and coal: 120 Swiss francs per ton of CO2. Two-thirds of this is distributed back to the population and companies (incentive tax).

- Buildings program: promotes the energy-efficient renovation of buildings and investments in renewable energies. It is financed with one third of the revenue from the CO2 tax.

- Emissions trading: CO2-intensive companies such as cement and paper manufacturers as well as chemical and pharmaceutical companies must acquire the rights to emit greenhouse gases in the emissions trading system. The system is designed to ensure that CO2 emissions are reduced where it is cheapest to do so.

According to the CO2 Act, Switzerland should have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent between 1990 and 2020. However, although a considerable proportion of the emissions were offset with climate projects abroad, emissions only fell by 19 percent. This is mainly due to motorized transport, whose emissions continue to rise.

Passive Swiss energy policy

Important decisions in Swiss energy policy were triggered by global events. Only two months after the reactor disaster in Fukushima in 2011, the Federal Council decided to phase out nuclear energy. This means that existing nuclear power plants will be decommissioned at the end of their operating lives and not replaced by new ones.

This plan was approved by the people in 2017 in the vote on the «Energy Strategy 2050». In the process, it was also decided to promote the expansion of renewable energies. Renewable energies include wind, hydroelectric and solar power plants.

Their energy is needed because the phase-out of nuclear energy means that electricity from nuclear power plants is no longer needed. At the same time, the demand for electricity is increasing. The reason: Fossil heating systems are to be replaced by heat pumps. Vehicles with combustion engines are also to be replaced by electric cars. This change is necessary to limit global warming.

Solar energy is to make the largest contribution to renewable energies, supported by wind energy. The pace of expansion must be stepped up considerably. After all, Switzerland lags far behind in solar and wind energy in a European comparison. According to the Swiss Energy Foundation, our country ranks only 23rd out of 28 countries surveyed in terms of per capita production. Denmark and Sweden produce around eight times more electricity per capita from solar and wind energy than Switzerland.

Solar offensive at the expense of the environment?

In 2022, the Ukraine war and the energy crisis highlighted the great dependence on oil and gas. Because an electricity shortage was looming, the National Council and the Council of States passed an urgent federal law in the fall of 2022 to expand solar energy. This «solar offensive» is intended to significantly increase electricity production in winter by 2025. Legal requirements for nature conservation and environmental protection will be relaxed. It should be easier to obtain permits for large alpine solar plants.

The production of winter electricity is important because it is uncertain to what extent Switzerland will be able to import electricity in the future. These imports have so far been necessary in the cold season. An electricity agreement with the EU could regulate cross-border electricity trade. But it is not clear when such an agreement will be reached. This is because Switzerland had broken off negotiations with the EU in 2021. The importance of integration into the European electricity market is made clear by a study conducted by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy in 2022. The report states that with an electricity agreement, no supply bottlenecks are to be feared in the coming years.

More electricity from renewable energies

In summer 2023, Parliament also passed a wind energy offensive («Windexpress»). The urgent law is intended to speed up the construction of large wind power projects that are already at an advanced stage of planning. Cantonal authorities will now issue building permits instead of the municipalities, as was previously the case. Appeals to the Federal Supreme Court are now only permitted for legal issues of fundamental importance.

A further law (a blanket decree on the Energy and Electricity Supply Act) is intended to ensure that electricity production from renewable energies excluding hydropower is significantly increased by 2035. At the same time, nature conservation regulations will be relaxed. Parliament passed the law in December 2023, but because smaller environmental organisations have launched a referendum against it, the law will be put to a popular vote (probably in June 2024).



Thomas Schenk