Biodiversity: In brief

Switzerland’s biodiversity is under pressure. Although incentive measures are having an effect locally, biodiversity remains in a poor state and continues to decline. A third of all species and half of all types of habitat in Switzerland are threatened. Occasional gains are not enough to make up for the losses caused mainly by a lack of land area, soil sealing, fragmentation, intensive use, and nitrogen and pesticide inputs. Subsidies that harm biodiversity exacerbate this negative trend. There is an urgent need for resolute action to preserve the services that biodiversity provides. Rich and resilient biodiversity also helps to mitigate climate change and its consequences.

1. Land use change, housing, mobility, nutrition (drivers)

Biodiversity refers to the diversity of life on the level of ecosystems (habitats), species (flora, fauna, fungi, microorganisms) and genetic diversity, i.e. the variability and variety of individuals within a given species.

Switzerland's rich biodiversity is the outcome of its geophysical diversity (differences in altitude, climate extremes, diversity of the soils), on the one hand, and human influences, on the other.

Centuries of land use have generated and shaped Switzerland's mosaic of forests, open country, surface waters and settlements and favoured the development of flora and fauna.

Land use has changed considerably, however, over the past century and reflects changing societal requirements and demands, such as:

  • greater energy requirements and the development of renewable energies,
  • increased mobility,
  • the expansion of settlements and transport infrastructure, driven by rising demand for living and working space, as well as transport services
  • greater and more varied leisure culture in previously unspoiled regions,
  • Swiss food system, especially with the production of meat and dairy products
  • the rationalisation of forestry production.

In addition, biodiversity is under pressure from climate change and invasive alien species.

2. Intensive use of land and bodies of water, soil sealing, urban sprawl, and nitrogen and pesticide inputs (pressures)

Since 1900, biodiversity has suffered severe losses worldwide and is now considered to be under threat. The main causes at global level are:

  • Overexploitation of land and sea
  • Extraction of natural resources
  • Climate change
  • Pollution
  • Invasive alien species.

Switzerland’s biodiversity is under particular pressure from

  • the loss and intensive use of soils,
  • the fragmentation and dissection of habitats by infrastructure and settlements
  • excessive nitrogen and pesticide inputs.

Settlements and infrastructure have been expanding continuously since the middle of the last century. This has led to a loss of space and increasing fragmentation of the remaining habitats. Throughout Switzerland, the pace of settlement growth has actually slowed since the turn of the millennium. Nevertheless, an area of soil roughly equivalent to eight football fields is built on every day.

Many habitats in settlement areas have disappeared due to the sealing of land surfaces and walls.

In Switzerland it is lower-lying areas – including the Swiss Plateau – that are heaviest hit by biodiversity loss. This is where the most land has been built over, and habitat fragmentation has advanced the furthest. The majority of the remaining land is used intensively, resulting in more pollutants being released into the soil than in other areas.

In the Alps, pressure on biodiversity is increasing, in particular as a result of mountain pastures being developed and farming becoming more intensive, more ski runs and snow-making facilities, greater use of hydropower and other infrastructures, and more people enjoying a wider range of outdoor activities in the mountains. The latter uses are taking up increasingly large areas of land, and their respective seasons are becoming ever longer.

Agricultural ecosystems in particular have suffered a severe loss of biodiversity due to intensive exploitation that is no longer sustainable for biodiversity conservation (high nutrient inputs and pesticide use, removal of small structures, soil compaction by heavy agricultural machinery, excessive irrigation). Excessive nitrogen inputs from agricultural livestock farming, which pollute two thirds of the sensitive ecosystems, have a particularly negative impact on biodiversity.

Agriculture is the main source of nitrogen, which in the form of fertilisers and ammonia affects biodiversity almost everywhere. Two thirds of the sensitive ecosystems are polluted with excessive nitrogen inputs from the air. Nitrogen surpluses have been decreasing very slowly since 2000. Particularly large amounts of nitrogen are produced in regions where livestock numbers are too high and can only be maintained with enormous imports of feed. Conversely, extensive livestock farming can favour biodiversity.

In many locations, water bodies have surrendered their natural courses and space to land-reclamation structures, flood control measures and electricity production.

Through its consumption and increasing imports of goods and services, Switzerland is putting increasing pressure on the planet’s natural resources and biodiversity. Goods consumed in Switzerland have more negative impacts on biodiversity in other countries than in Switzerland. The main reason is usually food production that damages biodiversity. Switzerland’s biodiversity footprint is four times higher than the planetary boundaries.

3. Continuing losses and acute threat despite some successes (state)

Biodiversity in Switzerland is in a poor state. The greatest losses were recorded between 1850 and 2000.

Over the past two decades, the state in areas already poor in biodiversity has remained stable. However, there has been a further decline in habitats that are of particular importance to biodiversity, and with them many rare animals, plants and fungi. The state of biodiversity differs according to the type of habitat.

  • The highest levels of biodiversity loss have been recorded in lakes and rivers and along their banks and shores. This is due to the lack of diverse structures, obstructions to continuity in the form of man-made structures such as dams and power plants, and the effect on water quality of micropollutants (pesticides, medicinal products, cleaning agents) and nutrients.
  • By contrast, biodiversity on agricultural land is in a very poor state, in particular because of excessive nitrogen inputs, the use of pesticides, and the removal of bushes and undergrowth, piles of stone and rock, and other minor and peripheral structures. The latest findings from the ALL-EMA agricultural species and habitats monitoring programme shows that biodiversity in lowland areas is still unsatisfactory. However, the locations, including the connectivity, and quality of these areas must be improved.
  • Settlement areas put enormous pressure on biodiversity, but also offer substitute habitats such as those found on ruderal sites or in wildlife gardens.
  • Biodiversity is under less pressure in forests than in other ecosystems, thanks mainly to the increasing proportion of dead wood.

Biotopes of national importance in Switzerland include lowland and upland marshes, alluvial zones, amphibian spawning sites and dry grasslands. The ecological quality of these areas has deteriorated over the last 20 years: ecosystems that are moisture-dependent and nutrient-poor have become dryer and more nutrient-rich, and typical local species have disappeared. The alarming status of species diversity continues to be documented by the Red Lists:

  • 242 species are already extinct in Switzerland
  • around one third of all species studied are considered endangered according to Red Lists.
  • For four out of seven species groups, the risk of extinction has increased in recent years (list)
  • Species at particular risk are aquatic species, especially decapods, stoneworts, amphibians, fish and cyclostomes.

Targeted recovery programmes have led to some local successes, however. For example, populations of the great crested newt had been in sharp decline since the 1990s, but the ongoing downtrend has now been slowed. Action in some regions has meant that numbers of the great crested newt have stabilised at a low level over the past ten years.

On the level of genetic diversity, the intensification of agriculture and concentration on high-yield crop varieties has given rise to impoverishment. It has been possible to decelerate some of the decline in breeds and varieties. Little is still known about the genetic diversity of wild species, including that of microorganisms.


4. Risks associated with the loss of ecosystem services, costs of inaction (impacts) 

Biodiversity provides ecosystem services which make an essential contribution to social and economic development. Such ecosystem services include, for example:

  •  sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and mitigating the effects of climate change;
  • maintenance of soil fertility;
  • re-growth of raw materials and food;
  • drinking water, which is filtered in sufficient quantities by forests and their soil; enhancement of the quality of life through the provision of near-natural recreational areas;
  • protection against rockfall and avalanches, as can be provided by mountain forests;
  • loss of genetic resources for new drugs and crop plants;absorption of precipitation peaks by mires and wetlands;
  • regulation and containment of pathogens.

Biodiversity losses are expressed in the increasing degradation of ecosystems, the functionality for nature and their services for the economy and society. On the other hand, rich biological diversity improves the capacity of ecosystems to respond to disruption such as climate change. This is termed resilience.

Business, government and civil society leaders also perceive biodiversity loss as one of the existential, economic and societal risks for the next 5 to 10 years. Failure to act will also cost Switzerland more in the long run than taking effective action now. Finally, enhancing biodiversity can trigger positive ripple effects in many areas that improve quality of life and open up new economic opportunities.

5. Funding instruments and measures to promote biodiversity 

The implementation of conservation measures to promote biodiversity has a long tradition in Switzerland. The Swiss hunting reserves were the first protected areas to have their status enshrined in law in 1875. Over the past 100 years, Switzerland has designated a range other protected areas, starting with the National Park (1914) and including areas as diverse as amphibian spawning areas (2001) and dry meadows and pastures (2010). Areas designated for biodiversity in Switzerland currently cover around 13.4%. Switzerland therefore did not meet the 2020 minimum target of the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of designating 17% of the country's territory as protected areas.

Further instruments and measures, such as the creation of ecological infrastructure, the promotion of the sustainable use of biodiversity or the promotion of nature in agglomerations, can be found in the Swiss Biodiversity Strategy and its action plan, in the Sustainable Development Strategy and the Swiss Landscape Concept.

The existing instruments and measures that have been implemented in Switzerland so far are good and partly successful, but they are far from sufficient to stop the loss of biodiversity and to be able to conserve and promote biodiversity in the long term.

The popular initiative 'For the future of our nature and countryside' (also known as the Biodiversity Initiative), submitted in 2020,
calls for stronger protection of biodiversity and the Swiss countryside. TheFederal Council adopted its dispatch for an indirect counter-proposal in 2022.Addressing the key concerns of the initiative, this aims to ensure that sufficient protected areas are created and connected throughout Switzerland as appropriate habitats for animals and plants and that the ecological infrastructure is enshrined in law. Specifically, it requires that the core areas designated for biodiversity should cover at least 17% of the national territory from 2030 and that they should also be rehabilitated and connected. The Federal Council also wants to increase biodiversity in urban and settlement areas. In December 2023, the Council of States again rejected the proposal as amended by the National Council; the Biodiversity Initiative will therefore be put to the vote on 22 September 2024 without an indirect counter-proposal.

With the Swiss Biodiversity Strategy, the federal authorities outlined a plan for halting biodiversity loss and conserving ecosystem services. The strategy, which was adopted by the Federal Council in 2012, sets out 10 overall objectives, which were fleshed out in an action plan. he action plan was passed by the Federal Council on 6 September 2017. As part of its first implementation phase 2017–2023, the action plan ties its measures and pilot projects into the three impact areas:

  • 'direct biodiversity promotion' (e.g. developing and expanding the ecological infrastructure, species conservation)
  • 'indirect biodiversity promotion' (e.g. utilising synergies or preventing disincentives in sectoral policies) and
  • 'knowledge transfer and awareness-raising' among stakeholders and the population.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends stepping up efforts to ensure that the measures of the action plan are fully implemented and their impact is sustainable. The required efforts include identifying and avoiding subsidies that may have a negative effect on biodiversity, and securing financing. A study by WSL (2020) identifies over 160 subsidies and incentives with (varying degrees of) biodiversity-damaging effects. In fact, subsidies that harm biodiversity exceed the actual amounts spent by the public sector on promoting it. On 3 June 2022, the Federal Council commissioned the Federal Administration to conduct an in-depth study of the impact on biodiversity of eight instruments in agriculture, forest management and regional policy.

The conservation and promotion of biodiversity is enshrined in various other federal instruments:

  •  The Forest Policy 2020 plans to increase the percentage of forest reserves from 5% (2012) to 8% by 2020.
  • Agricultural policy compensates for services rendered to the general public. This also includes biodiversity contributions amounting to CHF 400 million per year for the establishment and maintenance of biodiversity promotion areas and for networking measures in accordance with the Direct Payments Ordinance. In April 2022 the Federal Council decided to toughen up the criteria for the proof of ecological performance (PEP) in particular where nutrients and plant protection products are concerned. In addition, the Federal Council set up new direct payment programmes to create financial incentives for sustainable production systems. Furthermore, from 2024 onwards, at least 3.5% of cropland must be reserved for promoting biodiversity.
  • The Water Protection Act, which was revised in 2011, contains provision for the rehabilitation of water bodies whose ecological functions have been impaired by the federal authorities. The negative environmental impact of hydropower must be reduced considerably by 2030, and around 4,000km of straightened waterways must be revitalised by 2090.
  • To prepare biodiversity for the challenges ahead, such as climate change and growing traffic of goods and passengers around the world, the Federal Council has issued the Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change, which sets out measures to manage biodiversity, drafted a strategy on invasive alien species, and updated the Swiss Landscape Concept with targets for wildlife and the landscape that are binding on the authorities.
  • The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to halt habitat loss and the extinction of endangered species by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 15).
  • An Action Plan on Risk Reduction and Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products adopted by the Federal Council in 2017. As a follow-up to the AP PPP, in 2021 Parliament adopted federal legislation on reducing the risks of pesticide use. The Federal Council had already in 2020 lowered the limits on pesticides that are especially problematic, such as the insecticide cypermethrin.

The conservation and promotion of biodiversity are challenges that require local, regional and global action that takes account of the whole system and, especially against the backdrop of global change, the interactions of climate and biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD ) and other environmental agreements serve as authoritative instruments at the global level. For example, the Nagoya Protocol, which was ratified by Switzerland in 2014, regulates the access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilisation. The corresponding ordinance came into force in 2016.

Further information

Last modification 17.04.2024

Top of page