Last month the Dutch government announced a bold set of climate policies designed to reduce annual carbon emissions by nearly 10 megatons, comparable to the yearly output of Latvia.

Several new coal power plants are to be closed or run at minimum capacity, a €3bn spending package will subsidise renewable energy projects and home refits, and there are a slew of smaller policy tweaks, for example on livestock numbers, reforestation and lowering the national speed limit.

The middle of a public health crisis may seem like a strange time to make new climate commitments, but the Dutch government had little choice. A court case brought by environmental groups in 2014 and upheld by the supreme court last year forced the government to act to reduce emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020 at the latest. It is climate action under extreme duress.

There are more than 1,500 climate lawsuits either complete or ongoing in the world, including similar cases in Ireland and Norway, but this is by far the most successful to date. Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, says the Dutch case is the “strongest climate change decision ever issued by a court” and the only one that has forced government policy.

It has big implications not only for climate law but also for governments, most of whose climate policies are years behind their ambitious pledges. Christiana Figueres, the former head of the UN framework convention on climate change, called it “a test case for very rapid emission reductions” that other nations should watch closely.

The Dutch government has opted for a crash programme, choosing policies that should mean it hits the target in the eight months remaining in 2020. But it didn’t have to be this way.

Marjan Minnesma, the head of the Urgenda Foundation, which filed the initial legal challenge, says the policies are “a great victory for the rule of law” but points out that Urgenda won its initial case in a district court in The Hague in June 2015.

The 2020 target was set at that time and could have been reached gradually, but the government twice tied the case up in appeals, eventually losing in the supreme court in December last year. “It took a long time to step up – five years of not embracing the judgment,” says Matt Siennot, an MP with Democrats 66, an opposition party.

An adviser to the Dutch government says the ruling coalition at the time of the original ruling – between the centrist People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the centre-left Labour party – was split on whether to take action and afraid that accepting the decision would open the way to further legal challenges. So they let it languish. “They would say they worked on it, but little was done” he said.

Their fears about the courts were ultimately correct: the Netherlands is now a proving ground for environmental lawsuits. A similar case to cap nitrogen pollution was won in 2018, and one of the lawyers from the Urgenda case has partnered with Friends of the Earth to sue Shell, which is headquartered in The Hague.

After the supreme court decision, Minnesma was invited to meet government ministers to present potential carbon reduction policies, and she found their reticence had melted away. “A year ago they wouldn’t have listened to any of that, but suddenly they were all writing it down,” she says.

What she presented was a green wishlist sourced from more than 800 NGOs and institutions – everything from housing associations with ambitious retrofitting strategies to animal rights groups pushing a meat tax and a national meat-free day.

“We are bringing these ideas from a wide range of Dutch society. We would say: if you want a broad group to accept it, these are the right things. I got the sense they were willing to listen.”

Paul van der Zanden, a spokesperson for the economics and climate ministry, says: “Finding social support was important for these 2020 climate goals. Urgenda gave a great help in the search for climate measures that citizens can take themselves.”

Many of the ideas would have been sidelined for years without the push provided by the court decision. Jan Willem Erisman, a professor at the Free University of Amsterdam who works on emissions in agriculture and who contributed proposals to Urgenda, says: “The lawsuits are almost needed for the work to be considered by the government. Otherwise economic concerns get in the way, targets are set, we don’t reach them, and then new targets get set.”

The Dutch climate agreement presented in the summer of 2019 was the product of cooperation between industry, the energy sector, unions, environmental groups and citizen groups.

The Dutch government believes public and social support are essential for a successful climate policy, and it helps citizens to take climate measures themselves. For example, it provides financial support for lowering households’ energy consumption.

Ultimately, the government settled on the easiest option for the bulk of the emissions reductions. One coal-fired power plant will be closed outright, and two others built in 2016 will run at a minimal level. This alone will save 5-7.5mt of emissions. But several more public-facing measures from the Urgenda list were selected as well. There will be €2bn for renewable energy subsidies, much of it for rooftop solar, and buybacks of inefficient household appliances. Housing associations will receive much of a €300m pot for retrofitting.

“So far there really hasn’t been much of an attempt to involve people in policies to slow climate change,” says Rebecca Willis, an environmental policy researcher at Lancaster University. “Governments often prioritise policies that don’t impact directly on people’s lives, like switching to renewable energy. But the changes now needed, from switching to electric vehicles and public transport to eating less meat, will affect people’s lives, and it’s vital to work with people to involve them.”

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the Dutch measures have provoked much of a pushback yet. The Netherlands is no stranger to the climate culture war. The speed limit change from 130km/h to 100km/h – a measure that has already been brought in and is expected to save half a megaton of carbon per year – was mocked as “nonsense” by the far-right MP Geert Wilders and criticised by motoring lobbyists, but the much larger and more expensive parts of the package have passed relatively quietly.

The government may have the coronavirus crisis to thank for that. Compared with the spending programmes being rolled out in response to the pandemic, a climate programme that would be huge any other year now seems slight and has not attracted much notice.

Remco De Boer, an energy analyst, says: “There’s so much else happening. And they’re spending money. KLM [the Dutch airline] has just been rescued [for €4bn].” He says measures such as renewables subsidies and home upgrades also fit with the desire for economic stimulus.

The crisis has also provided the government with a bit of wiggle room in delivering the policies. Emissions for 2020 will be much reduced with so much economic activity suspended. Pieter Boot, the head of climate at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, estimates that even a short lockdown could knock more than 5mt off the yearly total.

But Minnesma says that even if emissions get a one-time reprieve, the measures need to be permanent. The court verdict will be just as valid next year and every year going forward. “We still have the rule of law,” she says, “and we have shown using the law as an instrument of change is possible.”

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