A Sustainable Veneer
From the moment your plane lands at Schiphol, you’re surrounded by the seemingly sustainable paradise that is the Netherlands. Schiphol itself is an example of the Dutch using every square kilometer they have to the fullest extent possible: the airport is built on what used to be Haarlemermeer (Haarlem’s Lake). Its name is an homage to the lake it was built upon – Schiphol translates to “ship’s hell,” as the current site of the airport was a frequent location for shipwrecks. The airport has also made public commitments to sustainability by investing in a fleet of 211 electric buses which do not produce any carbon emissions and installing electric charging stations (themselves powered through wind energy) in every parking lot.
Once you collect your bags and decide to head to your hotel in Amsterdam, you can take one of Schiphol’s taxis (all fully electric Teslas), a train powered by wind energy, or simply bike. As you’re traveling into the city through the various canals, you can pick up on what author Fred Feddes calls “the informal city,” (Feddes p. 75). Amsterdam was never centrally planned; it just naturally expanded over time as the Dutch needed it to. When they did expand, however, they made sure to do so in an ostensibly sustainable manner. For example, when the classic Amsterdam canal ring pattern did not make sense, was not financially viable, and would have required moving thousands of people away from their homes, Dutch developers used the existing waterways (what Feddes called “rods”) as the basis for the city’s new canals (Feddes p. 86). This neighborhood, now called de Jordaan, is easily spotted on maps due to the canals which break with the pattern that characterizes the rest of the city. The city planners were aware that to sustain Amsterdam’s development, they needed to remain conscious of different group interests.
When you’re in the city, sustainability seems to be everywhere. The abundance of cyclists make this clear – more than half of Amsterdam’s residents commute by bike or on foot. The city is also home to more than 800 restaurants offering meat-free options, which reduce the city’s carbon footprint. The Dutch capital is also targeting carbon emission cuts of 55% in 2030 and 95% in 2050.
After you’ve had enough of the Dutch capital city, you can take another wind-powered train to the port city of Rotterdam. While Feddes calls Amsterdam the “informal city,” writer Aaron Betsky describes Rotterdam’s cityscape as “a scene that teaches us how we can make a good society by design,” (Betsky p. 6). Amsterdam is a relic of history, where exploration into each successive canal layer brings you further and further back in time. Rotterdam, by contrast, is a modern construction. During the Second World War, Rotterdam was levelled as the Nazis sought to extract a Dutch surrender quickly. This provided a blank slate for developers to rebuild the port city in the 1950’s, making it a much more state-of-the-art city than other urban hubs in the Netherlands.
But the Dutch still used sustainable development practices in Rotterdam that they had used elsewhere. For example in Rotterdam’s suburbs, the developers left the existing canal structure intact and built around it, just like their predecessors had 300 years prior when developing de Jordaan in Amsterdam (Betsky p. 18). The water doesn’t only determine the location of the houses – they’re quite literally molded from it as well: the brick is made of clay dug from the banks of the Rhine. These practices illustrate how the Dutch are an ostensibly sustainable people. Everything is utilized to the fullest extent possible; no resource goes to waste.
Behind the Curtain
In reality, the Dutch picture of sustainability is murkier. Despite having an outward appearance of heavy investment in renewable energy sources, from Schiphol’s fully electric taxi fleet to the wind-powered trains, the Dutch are home to Europe’s largest natural gas field and a plethora of oil wells offshore in the North Sea. This has created an overreliance on fossil fuels. Per the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Report, only 6.39% of the Dutch primary energy supply is extracted from renewable sources, ranking them 27th out of 28 European Union member-states (van Berkel p. 27). The Dutch also imported 13.4 tonnes of fossil fuels per capita in 2018, ranking them 28th among EU member-states, and their renewable electricity capacity is only 499.3 megawatts per one million people, ranking them 23rd. And it’s not as if Dutch renewable energy capabilities are improving either. According to a 2015 report by the European Energy Agency, the Netherlands was the only member-state not on track to meet the EU’s targets designed to ensure the Union will reach 27% renewable energy by 2030. Individual member-state targets are designed for what each member-state can “realistically” achieve, yet the Netherlands is still lagging behind.
This has led to a lackluster performance in the seventh Sustainable Development Goal – Affordable and Clean Energy. Two of the four indicators informing the SDG should be a slam dunk for any developed nation – 100% of the Dutch population has access to energy and clean fuels for cooking. The other two, which measure carbon emissions from fuel combustion for electricity and heating per total electricity output and the share of renewable energy in the total primary energy supply, pose “significant” and “major” challenges to the Netherlands respectively. The UN’s long-term objective for the first indicator, carbon emissions from fuel combustion for electricity and heating per total electricity output, is a value of 0. To its credit, the Netherlands has made substantive steps towards the goal, improving from a value of 1.91 in 2000 to 1.40 in 2017. The second indicator, the share of renewable energy in the total primary energy supply, is a more dire situation. The Netherlands has only improved from 1.81% in 2000 to 6.39% in 2018. At the current rate, the Dutch will not achieve the UN’s long term objective of 51% renewables until 2194.
While carbon emissions are just one part of the larger sustainability picture, it is one of the most crucial areas with the largest spillover effects. According to NASA, climate change is a direct result of greater human emissions of greenhouse gases. The Netherlands has one of the worst renewable energy infrastructures in Europe and is incredibly dependent upon these fossil fuels that accelerate climate change. To their credit, however, the Dutch have made steps towards improving the sustainability of their energy sector. In 2019, the Dutch parliament passed the Climate Act, which codifies a commitment to a 49% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and a 95% reduction by 2050. It remains to be seen if the Netherlands follows through with these commitments however; the Dutch government tempers these targets by saying that these “measures will be introduced step by step to ensure nothing needs to be rushed.” Bold words for a country that risks losing a third of its land to climate change.
“Amsterdam: City Profile.” Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, carbonneutralcities.org/cities/amsterdam/.
“Amsterdam Ranked as One of the World’s Most Eco-Friendly Cities for Workers.” IAmsterdam, 11 June 2020, http://www.iamsterdam.com/en/business/news-and-insights/news/2020/amsterdam-eco-friendly-cities-ranking.
“The Attack: the 1940 Bombing of Rotterdam.” Rotterdam Celebrates the City, City of Rotterdam, http://www.rotterdamcelebratesthecity.com/background/the-attack-the-1940-bombing-of-rotterdam/.
Berkel, Ellen van, et al. Translated by Lieneke Hoeksma, Statistics Netherlands, The Hague, 2019, pp. 1–65, The SDGs in the Dutch Context 2019.
“Biggest Electric Bus Fleet.” Schiphol Airport, www.schiphol.nl/en/schiphol-group/page/biggest-electric-bus-fleet/.
“The Causes of Climate Change.” NASA, 10 May 2021, climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
“Charge Your Electric Car Here.” Schiphol Airport, www.schiphol.nl/en/schiphol-group/page/charge-your-electric-car-here/.
“Climate Policy.” Ministerie Van Economische Zaken, Regering Van Nederland, 31 Jan. 2020, www.government.nl/topics/climate-change/climate-policy.
Feddes, Fred. A Millennium of Amsterdam: Spatial History of a Marvellous City. Thoth, 2019.
“Getting to and from Schiphol by Bike.” Schiphol Airport, www.schiphol.nl/en/schiphol-group/page/getting-to-and-from-schiphol-by-bike/.
“Netherlands Profile.” Sustainable Development Report 2020, dashboards.sdgindex.org/profiles/NLD.
Rooij, Rogier van. “All Dutch Trains Now Run 100% On Wind Power.” CleanTechnica, 8 Jan. 2017, cleantechnica.com/2017/01/08/dutch-trains-now-run-100-wind-power/.
Rooij, Rogier van. “Netherlands One Of Least Sustainable EU Countries. How Did The Dutch Get Their Green Image?” CleanTechnica, 12 July 2017, cleantechnica.com/2017/07/12/netherlands-one-least-sustainable-eu-countries-dutch-get-green-image/.
“Steeds Meer Elektrische Taxi’s.” Schiphol Airport, www.schiphol.nl/nl/schiphol-group/pagina/steeds-meer-elektrische-taxis/.
“Trends and Projections in Europe 2015 – Tracking Progress towards Europe’s Climate and Energy Targets.” European Environment Agency, 20 Oct. 2015, http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/trends-and-projections-in-europe-2015.
“100 Years of History.” Schiphol Airport, www.schiphol.nl/en/you-and-schiphol/page/over-100-years-of-schiphol/.