Switzerland: The International Comparative Legal Guide to: Environment & Climate Change Law 2019

Last Updated: 14 February 2019
Article by Markus Schott

Most Read Contributor in Switzerland, July 2019

1 Environmental Policy and its Enforcement

1.1 What is the basis of environmental policy in your jurisdiction and which agencies/bodies administer and enforce environmental law?

According to article 73 of the Federal Constitution ("BV"), the Confederation and the Cantons shall endeavour to achieve a balanced and sustainable relationship between nature and its capacity to renew itself, and the demands placed on it by the population. Pursuant to article 74 BV, the Confederation is responsible for the legislation on the protection of the population and its natural environment against damage or nuisance and it shall ensure that such damage or nuisance is avoided. The Cantons are primarily responsible for the execution of the relevant federal regulations, but they may also enact implementing rules where federal law so provides. The Federal Constitution contains further provisions regarding protection of the water, forests as well as natural and cultural heritage (articles 76, 77 and 78 BV).

There are numerous acts and ordinances implementing the constitutional mandate regarding environmental protection. The following acts are the most important: the Environmental Protection Act ("USG"); the Ordinance on Avoidance and Disposal of Waste ("VVEA"); the Ordinance on Contaminated Sites ("AltlV"); the Chemicals Act ("ChemG"); the Act on Reduction of CO2 ("CO2 Act"); as well as the Nuclear Energy Act ("KEG"); and the Ordinance on the Environmental Impact Assessment ("UVPV"). The Swiss environmental policies and the implementation of environmental laws are based on the following main principles:

  • The "precautionary principle" (Vorsorgeprinzip) states that early preventive measures must be taken in order to limit effects which could become harmful or a nuisance (article 1 para. 2 USG).
  • The "polluter pays principle" (Verursacherprinzip) states that any person who causes measures to be taken due to endangering, polluting or causing damage to the environment must bear the costs related to avoidance or clean-up (article 2 USG).
  • The "principle of abatement of pollution at source" (Prinzip der Bekämpfung von Umweltbeeinträchtigungen an der Quelle) that originates from the precautionary principle and states that environmental impact must be abated at its source. According to article 74 para. 3 BV, the Cantons are responsible for the implementation of the relevant federal regulations, except where the law provides otherwise and determines that the Confederation is competent for implementation. This principle is replicated in article 36 USG. Accordingly, the Confederation supervises the execution of environmental law by the Cantons and coordinates their activities (article 38 para. 1 and 2 USG). In some areas, the federal government is itself responsible for the enforcement of environmental legislation, such as import and export of waste (article 41 USG). In general, the Federal Council enacts the implementing provisions (article 39 para. 1 USG).

On the federal level, the Federal Office for the Environment ("BAFU") is generally responsible for the execution of environmental law, but there are also some special agencies, which are competent in specific areas such as the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate ("ENSI"). In addition, each Canton has its own authority responsible for the execution of environmental law.

1.2 What approach do such agencies/bodies take to the enforcement of environmental law?

Switzerland has a rather strict approach to enforcing environmental law. Apart from authorisations and inspections, the agencies also have the power to impose fines for various violations of environmental law (article 61 USG). Severe violations may even be punished by a custodial sentence of up to three years (article 60 USG). Other sanctions include the order to discontinue illegal activities, the re-establishment of the lawful conditions and the withdrawal of authorisations.

1.3 To what extent are public authorities required to provide environment-related information to interested persons (including members of the public)?

The authorities are obliged to inform the public adequately about environmental protection and levels of environmental pollution (article 10e para. 1 USG). If it is in the public interest, the authorities may also inform interested persons about the results of inspections and conformity-assessments, after having consulted the persons concerned. Furthermore, any person has the right to inspect environmental information in official documents and information relating to energy regulations that relate to the environment and to request information from the authorities about the content of these documents (article 10g para. 1 USG).

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