The Dutch are among Europe’s worst polluters, and industry will bear the brunt of change
THE FLAT fields of reclaimed marshland that make up most of the Netherlands’ agricultural landscape are known as “polders”. In recent decades the word has come to designate a Dutch style of governance, the “polder model”, in which competing social stakeholders negotiate how to tackle collective problems. The idea is that this resembles the way medieval Dutch nobles and farmers haggled over maintaining the dikes and canals that kept their polders above water—and over how to split the bill.
The latest round of Dutch “poldering” also concerns a sea-level-related threat. On June 28th the government released its national Climate Accord, the product of over a year of bargaining between industry, consumer groups and politicians over how to meet the Netherlands’ targets for reducing carbon emissions. Under the global climate agreement signed in Paris in 2016, the country committed to cut its CO2 emissions by 49% by 2030 and by 95% by 2050. The question was how to do it, and who would pay.
To work this out the government convened negotiating groups in five sectors: electric power generation, the built environment, industry, agriculture and transport. Some sectors were readier than others, says Kees Vendrik, a senator from the GreenLeft party who chaired the electric power group’s negotiations: “With electricity it went well. With industry it didn’t.” The power sector has been moving towards renewable energy for years, and its new commitments mainly entail more wind turbines in the North Sea and retiring coal plants sooner.
Dutch heavy industry, however, argued that forcing it to cut emissions sharply would simply raise costs and shift activity abroad. Other sectors pledged everything from replacing gas stoves with electric induction in housing, to a possible per-kilometre charge on driving cars. Farmers agreed to reduce the emissions of the country’s noisome pigs.
The aim of the polder model is to create consensus for difficult measures by making all big players jointly responsible for the plan. Yet when the initial draft of the climate accord was presented in December, it created a wave of political anxiety. Voters worried about the costs to drivers, and the costs to homeowners of replacing their gas boilers with expensive new heat pumps. Many wondered why the Dutch should be “the class goody-goodies”, fulfilling their climate obligations while other countries ignore them.
In fact, although the Netherlands is widely seen as a country of cyclists and Greenpeace activists, it has one of the worst records in Europe on carbon emissions. In 2017, the last year for which data are available, it put out 12 tonnes per person, more than notorious coal junkies like Poland and Germany. This is largely down to heavy industries such as petrochemicals concentrated around Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port. Aviation and energy-intensive greenhouse agriculture also play a role.
Still, a poll in June found that support for government spending to reduce carbon emissions had declined to 38%, from 46% in March. Political parties bear much of the blame for that, says Ed Nijpels, a former Liberal politician who led the Climate Accord process: after the first draft was released in December, “they only talked about the costs of cutting emissions, not about why we are doing this and what we can achieve.”
The coalition government is made up of two right-leaning parties, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, and two environmentalist ones, D66 and the Christian Union. The conservative parties are worried about a new climate-sceptic populist outfit, Forum for Democracy (FvD), whose leader, Thierry Baudet, spent the autumn baselessly claiming that the climate accord would cost €1tn. (The actual costs of new emissions-reduction measures, including those in the Climate Accord, are estimated at €5.2bn per year in 2030, about 0.7% of GDP.) In provincial elections in March the FvD finished first with 14% of the vote.
In response, between January and June the government changed some of the more sensitive parts of the plan. Per-kilometre charges for cars will be pushed back to 2026 at the earliest. Farmers will get €1bn to help buy energy-saving equipment. Mainly, costs will be shifted from consumers to industry: large enterprises will face a new carbon tax on top of what they already pay under the European Union’s emissions trading scheme.
This makes a good deal of sense. Fully half of the Netherlands’ carbon emissions come from just 10 big industrial companies, including Shell and Tata Steel. Yet the government’s reluctance to let individual citizens bear the cost of mitigating climate change shows how difficult it is to get voters to endorse the necessary sacrifices. Even when the entire polder has agreed to them.