The energy policy of Switzerland is characterised by a number of specific factors, which are:
- the federal structure of the country and its direct democracy;
- the "subsidiarity" principle, which calls for state regulation as a last resort after private initiatives have failed;
- its economic structure with a dominant services sector and little heavy industry; and finally
- the growing influence of European Union policymaking.
Energy policy is a split responsibility between the federal state and the twenty-six cantons. Federal energy policymaking has been strengthened in recent years (in matters such as standards and labels), chiefly by means of the 1998 Energy Law and its subsequent amendments. In other domains such as buildings, cantons have clung to their prerogatives and merely consented to harmonised regulations and standards. In many instances, the federal state sets a minimum standard (like e.g. for feed-in tariffs), leaving it to cantons to pursue more generous policies.
A sizeable portion of the federal SwissEnergy programme is allocated to co-financing cantonal programmes and projects. The efficiency of energy policies and programmes has improved over the last few years owing to stricter monitoring and harmonisation, but large disparities among cantonal policies prevail. Some indicators, such as per capita energy efficiency spending, highlight the scope for action in laggard cantons.
Under Swiss direct democracy, any law, even those passed by parliament, may be subjected to a popular verdict. This has happened to seven energy-related items since 2000, including pro-renewable proposals, which were defeated. This underscores the importance of communication of energy policy matters. According to polls, Swiss people tend to have become less concerned with environmental issues in recent years. But climate change, as it manifests itself in receding glaciers, devastating floods and landslides, has sharpened the public's receptiveness for the cause of sustainable energy.
This review examines the formulation of energy efficiency policies and programmes in the distinctive political and geographical context of Switzerland.