Bütikofer was born in Mannheim and grew up in Speyer. He studied philosophy, sinology and history in Heidelberg, but did not finish his studies.
Bütikofer was active in the student's movement and one of the "K groups", the Maoist Communist League of West Germany (Kommunistischer Bund Westdeutschland; KBW). From the 1980s onwards, he became active in Heidelberg municipal politics for the Green-Alternative List.
In 1984, he was elected into the town council of Heidelberg and became a member of the Green Party, the starting point of his political career with Alliance 90/The Greens. In 1988, he was elected in the Landtag of Baden-Württemberg. He was Member of the Landtag until 1996.
After a year of parental leave, in 1997 Bütikofer became co-chairman of the Baden-Württembergian Green Party. Two years later he was elected secretary general of the federal party. In December, 2002 he became co-chairman of the federal party (alongside Angelika Beer) and was reelected in 2004 and 2006 (alongside Claudia Roth). On 3 March 2008 he announced not to stand again as a party chairman and to run for European Parliament in 2009, to which he was elected.
Since 2009, Bütikofer is a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the German Green Party. He is a member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), and a substitute member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) and the Subcommittee on Security and Defense (SEDE). As shadow rapporteur, he has authored reports on the evaluation of the European Endowment for Democracy (2015), on the impact of developments in European defence markets on the security and defence capabilities in Europe (2015) and on green growth opportunities for SMEs (2015).
In addition, Bütikofer is a member of the Delegation for Relations with the United States and the Transatlantic Legislators' Dialogue and a substitute member of the Delegation for Relations with China. He also serves as a member of the European Parliament Intergroup on SMEs.
Bütikofer is the Green Group's spokesperson on industrial policy, and speaker of the delegation from the German Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) to the European Parliament.
In 2005, Bütikofer complained that because Germany has no winner-take-all political system, there were only few Green party members in the foreign service, even after Joschka Fischer had been foreign minister for seven years; by contrast, hundreds of supporters of the Christian Democratic Union served in the Federal Foreign Office. In 2010, Bütikofer characterized his party as representing “a certain lifestyle,” noting that, mostly urbanized, many belong to the professions and are politically and socially engaged. “They sit on school boards. They are active in their churches or sports clubs. They support nongovernmental organizations,” he said.
Under Bütikofer’s leadership, a two-year-long effort to negotiate a revised immigration law was abandoned by the Green Party in 2004, citing concerns about, among other things, that any regulations allowing easier detentions or expulsions of terror suspects would subvert Germany's civil rights protections.
When the European Commission issued a strategy paper in 2010 which proposed pursuing more bilateral trade agreements and investing in infrastructure in Africa as a means to increase alternative sources of rare earth metals, hoping to break China’s dominance of the market for the strategic minerals, Bütikofer demanded an “innovative industrial policy that reduces the use of resources” instead.
When German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced his intentions to lift an arms embargo on China that had been in place since the crackdown on student-led opposition demonstrators near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, Bütikofer opposed the plan and instead called for a joint approach together with the United States.
Following the assassination of journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya in 2008, Bütikofer characterized the human rights situation in Russia as "deteriorating". He also criticized Russia's behaviour towards Georgia as "almost unbelievably arrogant", referring to the country's confrontation with Georgia and its decision to sever all transport and postal links in 2008. He is an advocate of "a more open and more clear-cut language from the West, including Germany [...] if we just don't want to be standing by."Center for Global Politics (CGP), Free University of Berlin, Member of the Advisory Board
European Business Summit (EBS), Member of the Honorary Committee
European Endowment For Democracy (EED), Member of the Board of Governors
American Jewish Committee’s Ramer Institute Berlin, Member of the Advisory Board
Heinrich Böll Foundation, Member of the Europe/Transatlantic Advisory Board
Green European Foundation, Member of the General Assembly
In addition, Bütikofer served on the board of Europa-Union Deutschland, the German branch of the Union of European Federalists (UEF), Aspen Institute Berlin, and German-Chinese Dialogue Forum. He is a member of the Green European Foundation, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the German Council for Foreign Relations, the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), and the German trade union ver.di.
Bütikofer's father was a post office worker and his mother was a housewife. He has fathered three daughters with Henriette Katzenstein. In 2001, he married Renee Krebs.