A better environment starts in The Hague

2 December 2009

A better environment starts in The Hague

The Netherlands wants to take the lead in Copenhagen, but our credibility will suffer because of our own weak climate policy.

Agnes Kant is parliamentary leader of the SP. Paulus Jansen is the SP's parliamentary spokesman on energy and climate. Eric Smaling is a member of the Senate for the SP, and professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Twente.

Almost everyone agrees that a global approach to the climate problem is needed. It is therefore of great importance that a robust agreement should come out of Copenhagen. The biggest threat is, however, the time-honoured prisoner's dilemma: if you don't move, I won't either. This brings the risk of a weakened final accord, one which imposes no real obligations. That risk exists also within the European Union.

In the Dutch national parliament a very large majority recognises the need for world-wide agreements regarding the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases, adaptation to the consequences of climate change, and aid to poor countries unable to take such measures under their own steam. The Dutch government has therefore the broad political support it needs in order to take the lead, together with like-minded countries, in the negotiations. Our credibility, however, suffers as a result of the weak and unconvincing climate policies operated within our own country.

The official Planning Bureau for the Environment conducts annual research on the effectiveness of environmental policy. According to the recently issued Milieumonitor 2009 (Environmental Monitor 2009), none of the four climate objectives which the government formulated and which are supposed to be achieved by 2020 is on course. In addition, permission for the building of four new nuclear power stations, the lax attitude of the government in relation to the privatisation of energy utilities Essent and Nuon and the half-hearted handling of the promotion of renewable energy have led to a dissipation of the momentum necessary for a strong approach.

An effective climate policy is one in which direction by the authorities and encouragement of public and industry go hand in hand. It is of particular importance that people understand sufficiently what is at stake. Emphasis should be laid upon the fact that energy saving, energy efficiency and renewable energy are good for the climate, but also good for your own bank account. They would also make us less dependent on Middle Eastern oil sheiks and Russian gas barons. People who take the climate problem with a pinch of salt, of whom there are a fair few, will nevertheless see that investing in energy saving and alternatives to coal- and gas-fired power stations is a good idea. And this will also work in a very positive way to limit emissions of CO2, one of the important greenhouse gases.

For this reason the slogan of the government's climate policy should first and foremost be amended from 'a voluntary approach' to 'a dynamic approach'. The government should, therefore, not wait until energy corporations, car manufacturers and building firms – 'the market' – find sustainability profitable, but instead have the courage to oblige this market actually to do something.

We could for example introduce a rule that from now on all new buildings must be constructed in the best available manner for the future utilisation of solar energy. For that you need only a single law.

The same goes for improved roofing insulation, insulation of outer walls and of floors in new buildings. Insulation standards in the Netherlands have not been amended since 1992. Technical progress would justify a doubling of these standards, as well as the accentuation of general demands in relation to energy efficiency for buildings. The government is unwilling, however, to go further than 40 percent. Bad for householders' pockets, bad for other users of buildings and bad for the climate.

In addition, the government has the possibility of making it compulsory for energy producers to generate a proportion of their electricity in ways which are sustainable. As things stand, this doesn't happen. On the contrary, faith is placed in market principles, while at the same time a veritable subsidy circus is being rigged up to have coal-fired power stations store underground the CO2 which they generate, a costly and energy-guzzling undertaking. To make a comparison: in order to pump the CO2 from four coal-fired power stations under the ground, another coal-fired station must be built.

It is also of the greatest importance that climate targets are laid down, not in work programmes and plans which a later government can easily get rid of, but through a Climate Law. This law could state which instruments can be employed, what are the responsibilities of the state and of industry, and how finance should be arranged.

The government has no inclination to do this. And that is remarkable, because such a law was indeed enacted in relation to the rising sea level. It should therefore be obvious that this law, the 'Delta Law', which is aimed only at tackling the results of climate change, ought to be adapted to make it suitable as a means of preventing it.

The Netherlands wants to take the lead in Copenhagen. This can be achieved if the government gets down to some serious work with its own climate policy. A better environment begins, after all, at home.

This article appeared, in Dutch, in the national daily NRC Handelsblad on 30th November 2009.

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