Economy and Consumption: In Brief

Natural resource consumption is determined by production and consumption patterns and by infrastructures. The demand areas of nutrition, housing and mobility are particularly significant. Two thirds of Switzerland's total environmental impact occurs abroad. Extrapolated to the global population, such a consumption of natural resources significantly exceeds the level that can be sustained by nature many times over. Worldwide, at least four of the nine planetary boundaries have been crossed – in relation to climate, biodiversity, deforestation, and phosphorus and nitrogen surpluses. Switzerland also contributes to this through its high per capita consumption. As an innovative and prosperous country, Switzerland is in a position to help drive the necessary transition to a sustainable use of resources.

1. Demographic, economic and consumption trends (drivers)

In 2000, Switzerland had a population of 7.2 million; by 2022 it had grown by 20% to 8.4 million. Consumer spending by Swiss households is high compared with that of other countries around the world. Adjusted for inflation, it increased by 27% between 2000 and 2020, which was a faster rate than population growth.

The areas with the greatest impact on the environment are nutrition, housing and mobility; around two-thirds of the total environmental impact of Switzerland can be attributed to these sectors.

Another important factor is investments in infrastructures and production methods that are designed for resource-intensive and fossil technologies and determine resource consumption for decades ('lock-in mechanisms').

As far as production is concerned, the most environmentally sensitive sectors are food production, chemicals, energy and construction.

Service providers in the Swiss financial and commodities sector have a global influence on investments in environmentally sensitive production and extraction processes.

Digitalisation and other technological advances offer significant potential for energy and resource efficiency. However, they can also fuel the demand for critical raw materials, such as rare earth elements for high-tech products, or create new consumer needs.

In recent years, numerous social innovations have also emerged, such as business models for sharing vehicles, objects or services. Another such example is the ‘slow food’ movement, which advocates for sustainable nutrition.

2. High consumption of energy and raw materials (pressures)

The sharp increase in production and consumption is associated with a high consumption of raw materials and energy as well as land and water:

  • Energy and raw materials for the production of consumer goods;
  • Land for housing needs and transport routes as well as for animal feed and food, in Switzerland and abroad;
  • Water for households, factories and agriculture.

Material consumption per capita in Switzerland is above the European average: the material footprint per person here is 17.1 tonnes (2019), while in the EU it averages 14.5 tonnes. Material efficiency has improved, as the Swiss economy grew significantly faster from 2000 to 2019 than its material footprint. In absolute terms, however, the consumption of minerals, biomass, fossil fuels and other raw materials has increased by about 10%.

Another important factor relating to resource consumption is that many material cycles are not closed, and raw materials and products are not used sustainably.

With its current patterns of consumption and production, Switzerland uses natural resources to an extent that exceeds the Earth's ability to regenerate them and the planetary boundaries. If all countries were to consume as much as Switzerland does, it would take almost three Earths to sustain such consumption.

3. Progress in Switzerland, high impact abroad (state)

Approximately half of global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress is caused by the extraction and processing of raw materials.

Footprints show the environmental impact from the perspective of end consumption along the entire value chain at home and abroad. Many of Switzerland's environmental footprints are above the European average per person and more than double the global average. For most environmental impacts, absolute decoupling has occurred, i.e. economic output is growing while footprints are decreasing.

Switzerland's total environmental impact per capita has fallen by around one quarter since 2000. Calculations show that in order to reach a naturally sustainable level, the current total environmental impact would have to be reduced by at least two thirds.

In absolute terms, the total environmental impact has also decreased, but only by 13% due to the increase in population. This reduction is partly due to domestic successes in areas such as air pollution control, protection of the ozone layer and water protection.

Because most of our products and raw materials are imported, an increasing proportion of the environmental impacts connected to Swiss end consumption arise abroad. Currently, this share is two-thirds.

The greenhouse gas footprint per capita was around 13 tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2019. In 2000, it was still 17.2 tonnes per capita, i.e. it has been reduced by about a quarter. The greenhouse gas footprint is far above a level that is compatible with the planetary boundaries. According to scientific estimates for 2015, this is 0.6 tonnes. Although the population increased by 19% during the period under consideration, total emissions decreased, by 6% to around 109 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents.

Between 2000 and 2018, Switzerland‘s per-capita biodiversity footprint increased by around 8%. In absolute terms, it increased by as much as 28%. This exceeds the globally sustainable level approximately fourfold.

Despite the progress mentioned above, natural resources in Switzerland are also under pressure. The greatest challenges in our country are the following:

  • Climate change
  • Soil use caused by expanding settlement areas and transport routes
  • Over-fertilisation of ecosystems with nitrogen compounds
  • Input of plant protection products in soil and water bodies
  • Ever-growing quantities of waste causing Switzerland a loss of valuable resources

4. Consequences for the environment, economy and society (impact)

The global overuse of natural resources is pushing the environmental systems of the planet to the limits of their capacity and even beyond. Once these boundaries are crossed, this means there is an increased or even high risk of large-scale and irreversible environmental changes that will have a negative impact on the way we live.

The impacts of the overuse of resources affect natural habitats and species diversity, although the economy and human health and well-being are also affected. We are all reliant on the conservation of natural resources and the long-term availability of raw materials and energy. Natural resources therefore constitute a central basis for the well-being of our society.

5. Resource conservation and the circular economy (responses)

With regard to resources and the circular economy, the environmental impact at home and abroad is to be reduced along the entire life cycle of products and structures, material cycles are to be closed and resource efficiency improved. The framework for the protection and use of natural resources is provided by various sectoral policies, such as energy and agricultural policy, as well as environmental legislation, including environmental, waste and CO2 legislation.

Through procurement, the federal government and the public sector in general have direct leverage to conserve natural resources. With the implementation of the revised procurement law and the procurement strategy, the Confederation seeks to enable innovative, resource-saving solutions, set binding targets and thereby be a role model for private and other public procurers.

In 2020, the Federal Council asked the Federal Administration to draw up measures on resource conservation and the circular economy.

The Environmental Protection Act (EPA) sets out the principles of avoiding and recycling waste wherever possible. One of the fundamental ideas behind a circular economy is thus enshrined in the EPA. In addition, the parliamentary initiative 'Strengthening the Swiss Circular Economy' calls for an amendment to the Environmental Protection Act with the aim of concretising and further developing the existing principles. The aim is to promote the circular economy, reduce environmental pollution and increase the efficiency and security of supply of the Swiss economy.

Innovation, research and international collaboration are also important pillars of a circular economy.

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Last modification 20.12.2022

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