Relations between Switzerland and the EU in the area of the environment

Switzerland collaborates closely with the European Union (EU) on environmental matters. It has been a member of the European Environment Agency since 1 April 2006 and has succeeded in consolidating its relations with the EU in various sectors. Switzerland's environmental legislation has already been harmonised with EU regulations to a significant extent in a number of sectors.

The EU’s Green Deal

The Green Deal presented by the Commission in December 2019 announces ambitious environmental policy proposals and the greening of other policies. Its goal is to achieve climate neutrality in the EU by 2050.

Furthermore, in March 2020, the Commission adopted a new circular economy strategy that shifts the focus from recycling alone to include design, production and consumer empowerment. Projects in the area of sustainable smart mobility are announced, as well as the greening of agricultural policy specifically through legislative measures aimed at reducing the use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics. A new strategy to promote biodiversity should lead to binding targets in this area. The Commission also plans to adopt a "zero pollution" action plan for air, water and soil.

Switzerland and the EU share many of the sustainable development targets outlined in the Green Deal. Although Switzerland may benefit from these new developments in the EU, some measures could lead to trade barriers, such as product rules, or pose particular challenges, such as the planned introduction of a carbon adjustment mechanism at the borders.

European Environment Agency (EEA), meetings of EU environment ministers and of the heads of national agencies

Switzerland has been a full member of the European Environment Agency (EEA) and its European Environment Information and Observation Network (EIONET) since 2006. The EEA collects and analyses data on the state of the environment in 32 member countries (EU 27, EFTA 4 and Turkey) and six cooperating West Balkan countries. It ensures that these data meet the common criteria to guarantee their comparability. Although Switzerland only has a consultative role on the EEA Management Board, it benefits from the EEA's data collection and expertise, and information about Switzerland is included in EEA publications. However, Switzerland has not agreed to adopt the substantive rules for environmental policy or harmonise regulations in this area.

At the same time, Switzerland regularly attends the informal meetings of EU environment ministers. These meetings, which focus on specific topics, provide an opportunity for exercising reciprocal political influence.

Likewise, since 2006, Switzerland has been participating in the European Network of the Heads of Environment Protection Agencies (EPA Network) and the network of Heads of European Nature Conservation Agencies (ENCA).

Contribution to European enlargement

To help reduce the economic and social disparities within the enlarged EU, Switzerland has contributed over CHF 1.302 billion to the ten new Member States, which joined the EU in 2004, and to Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. The four areas of activity specified in the Memorandum of Understanding concluded between Switzerland and the EU in 2006 included, in particular environment and infrastructure. These cover, for example, the topics of energy efficiency, drinking water, wastewater, waste management, public transport, the remediation of industrial sites, the reduction of harmful emissions, spatial planning, biodiversity, and nature conservation.

The projects implemented in the States that joined in 2004 were completed in June 2017 and the projects implemented in Romania and Bulgaria were completed in 2019. In Croatia, the implementation period will end in December 2024. Parliament has approved a second contribution by Switzerland in an amount equal to the first on condition that the EU does not adopt discriminatory measures toward Switzerland. The environment and climate may be one of the five priorities.

Incorporation of EU environmental legislation into Swiss law

Apart from the agreements on the EEA and emissions trading (see below), bilateral accords between Switzerland and the EU generally provide for the adoption of EU legislation by Switzerland or the adaptation of Swiss legislative provisions to those of the EU in accordance with the principle of equivalence. Moreover, Switzerland also independently adopts elements of EU law in areas not covered by bilateral accords, essentially with a view to eliminating trade barriers.

With regard to the environment, the bilateral Agreement on Air Transport of 1999, for example, contains provisions on aircraft noise emissions. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), of which Switzerland is a member, is responsible, inter alia, for harmonising aircraft design standards, particularly in relation to environmental protection. The bilateral Agreement on the Carriage of Goods and Passengers by Rail and Road of 1999 also contains provisions for the coordination of transport policies. This enabled Switzerland to increase the taxes levied on heavy goods traffic and hence incentivise the switching of freight transport from road to rail.

Sectoral Dossiers

The Federal Council intends to pursue a bilateral course with the EU as long as Switzerland continues to have sufficient leeway in decision-making (in the areas covered by the bilateral agreements and other areas) and this course assures Switzerland favourable economic conditions.

Greenhouse gas emission trading scheme

The Agreement on the linking of the Swiss and EU emissions trading schemes came into force on 1 January 2020. As an important market-based instrument for climate protection, the Swiss trading scheme is designed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the largest emitters in the country. Now that the Swiss and EU schemes are linked, Swiss businesses can participate in the larger and more liquid EU emissions trading market. The EU scheme covers 2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, compared to 5 million tonnes for the Swiss scheme. This linking will also lead to a convergence in Swiss and EU CO2 prices and create a level playing field for participating businesses.

Furthermore, under this agreement, CO2 emissions from civil aviation have been included in the Swiss emissions trading scheme since January 2020. These new regulations apply to domestic flights and flights from Switzerland to countries in the European Economic Area (EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway).

The agreement signed with the EU on 23 September 2017 regulates the mutual recognition of emissions allowances from both trading schemes, each with their own legal basis. Therefore, Switzerland will not adopt any EU legislation.


The EU Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) obliges the manufactures, importers and processors of chemical products to demonstrate that new substances introduced to the European market since 1981and certain existing substances that have not yet been controlled fulfil the conditions specified in the regulation.

In 2008, the Federal Council decided to explore the possibility of cooperating with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) with a view to the possible harmonisation of the Swiss legislation with REACH. However, it was decided on 11 September 2015 to cease current active efforts toward opening negotiations with the EU and to begin an independent modernisation of Swiss chemicals legislation. At the same time, the Federal Council decided to review its options for cooperation in the interest of deepening technical and scientific collaboration with international authorities and certain countries. An exchange of letters was thus concluded in December 2017 between the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the Common Notification Authority for Chemicals of the FOEN, FOPH and SECO.

However, the benefit of signing an agreement on chemical products with the EU is that Switzerland would be afforded a high level of protection over the long term in the area of chemical products. Furthermore, Swiss authorities would gain access to ECHA’s protected data so that they may assert Swiss interests as the relevant legislation is developed.

The European ecolabel and resource efficiency

Switzerland decided not to create an official ecolabel of its own and considered instead that it would be more advantageous to participate in the European ecolabel scheme. Swiss companies can already obtain this label, however they have to submit an application to an authority in an EU Member State. Given the requirement of on-site inspections, this places those seeking certification for services, e.g. hoteliers, at a particular disadvantage.

An agreement with the EU could allow Switzerland to establish a body authorised to award the ecolabel and to participate in the definition of criteria for the awarding of the label for different goods and services. As part of the second round of bilateral accords, the Federal Council adopted a mandate for negotiations on the ecolabel and the EEA in 2001. However, it was only possible to reach an agreement on Switzerland's membership of the EEA.

In a wider context, it should be noted that, apart from the common interest of Switzerland and the EU in ensuring the sustainable management of resources, it may be wise to monitor the conditions surrounding competition between Swiss and EU companies, the opening up of the market for Swiss cleantech, and joint support for innovation. In short, the adoption of a consistent approach to the harmonisation of the ecological rules associated with products could be examined (for example ecolabel, eco-design, the Ecomanagement and Audit Scheme (EMAS), the evaluation of the ecological footprint of products and companies).

Copernicus - the European Earth Observation Programme (former GMES)

Copernicus was launched jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the EU in 1998 for the purpose of providing Europe with the capacity for observing the Earth. The aim is to provide targeted services in the areas of the environment and security (atmosphere, land and marine monitoring, climate change, emergency management, and security) to user groups such as public authorities, humanitarian organisations and the private sector.

In addition to its participation in the ESA, Switzerland has contributed to the development of Copernicus through the EU research framework programmes in which it participates. It is also involved in several institutions that receive mandates from Copernicus (EEA, ECMWF [European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts] and Frontex [European Border and Coast Guard Agency] for the in situ component; ESA and EUMETSAT [European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites] for the space component).

As Copernicus is now managed entirely by the EU, the conclusion of a specific bilateral agreement may be warranted to eventually gain access to its information, guarantee participation in government procurement processes, participate in governance and ensure that expertise and experiences are shared. The results of an economic impact assessment of participation in Copernicus suggest a positive impact in Switzerland, both for instrument manufacturers and companies that value the information and for Switzerland as a business location, not to mention the field of research.


The negotiations in the area of electricity were initiated in November 2007. The main objective was to ensure security of supply in the context of deregulated markets.

Talks specifically concerned the EU directive on the promotion of energies from renewable sources. Like the Member States of the EU, Switzerland could be required to formulate a national objective regarding the proportion of its total final energy consumption. The Swiss electricity and cleantech industry could gain access to new sectors as a result.

The EU also proposed taking certain environmental issues in relation to the international electricity market into account, for example nature conservation, atmospheric emissions of certain pollutants and impact assessments.

However, the conclusion of an agreement in the area of electricity still depends on an agreement on institutional matters and state aid. Application of the agreement will also be contingent on the full opening of the Swiss electricity market.

Timber trade

Since 3 March 2013, the European Union Timber Regulation has required each operator who places timber on the EU market for the first time to take a number of precautions, with a view to reducing the risk of products being placed on the market that have been produced by illegal logging. For downstream operators who buy or sell timber that has already been placed on the market, only the names of the suppliers and clients must be documented. The due diligence required by this regulation may pose a barrier to trade for Swiss re(exporters).

After a series of parliamentary motions, on 27 September 2019, Parliament passed an amendment to the Environmental Protection Act that allows the Federal Council to introduce, by means of an ordinance, an equivalent regulation to the EU regulation prohibiting the marketing of illegally harvested timber.

However, to achieve perfect equality in the treatment of individuals who place timber or products derived from timber for the first time on the Swiss or European market, an agreement would have to be signed with the EU. Such an agreement could, for example, take the form of a new chapter in the Agreement between the European Community and the Swiss Confederation on mutual recognition in relation to conformity assessment.

Further information

Last modification 06.01.2021

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