When it comes to the topic of the Netherlands and sustainability I always had the impression of being in a country very focused on being eco-friendly and sustainable. You have recycling trash that people seem to use (as shown by the always too full paper trash down my place), you can see solar panels in many places, and well the obvious: people always bike and therefore use less cars. And considering that one third of the country is under sea level, you could expect it to be very careful about ecology. Apparently it is not that much.
The Netherlands and Sustainability: The facts
The United Nations has sustainable development goals, and the Netherlands is not doing that great compared to its European neighbours. Among those goals you have to combat climate change, to create more prosperity, to boost equality, and to stimulate peace. Now from that list you would expect one of the happiest countries in the world to be high ranked, right?
The Netherlands is the 5th richest country in the European Union with a high trust in its institutions – well, as much as people nowadays trust in institutions as some representatives themselves bash them. Even though fair enough, Geert Wilders is no reference. However, the country is not doing that good in terms of renewable energy. When it comes to rankings, the Netherlands is 25th for greenhouse gas emissions, and 26th for the use of sun and wind power. Out of 28 countries, let’s say this is not a very good grade. More surprisingly, the country is 20th in the ranking of women’s health, man’s health being 12th. That also might have to do with the Dutch health system, but that’s another debate.
Another figure: according to Global Footprint Network, the Netherlands is a country with one of the biggest ecological deficit with a score of – 4.1. This result is the difference between the ecological footprint per person and the actual biocapacity per person. The carbon footprint is said to be thirty times higher than the forest’s capacity. Which is a lot. Speaking of forests, quoting a professor lecturing on the Dutch culture: “nothing is natural here, not even the forests”. A bit scary, but not 100% true. Hopefully. The trees are real though, just a lot of them are planted by us humans.
The Netherlands and Sustainability: Ignorant government but involved citizens?
Last year, a court ordered the Dutch government to cut its carbon emissions by 25% before 2020. The argument behind this decision was that the government’s job is to protect its citizen. Climate change being a major issue, it is therefore the government’s duty to protect its citizens against it. The Netherlands might have needed a wake up call, but it is still the first time a court ruled on this topic usually regulated by international treaties. Behind this decision is the complaint of 900 Dutch citizens, which shows that if the government needed a reminder on climate change, the population is well aware of the risks.
Besides that, you have some pretty good sustainability degrees in this beautiful-but-apparently-not-so-green country. For instance, Utrecht University’s research on this topic was recently ranked by the Times Higher Education as having the greatest impact worldwide, thanks to many (good) publications. Wageningen University was also ranked in the top 10. In terms of research then, some very good brains seem to be out of the Dutch universities.
The question I keep asking myself then is how come the Netherlands and sustainability do not go hand-in-hand together? Ever since I moved here I was under the impression this was a very green country. And then I started to pay attention. For instance, how come you can buy strawberries at the supermarket in December? Yeah, you’re not really supposed to.
Despite what I was thinking about the biking habit supposed to show a more sustainable lifestyle, the Dutch own more cars (per capita) than the British. As in many European countries, the majority of the population lives in an urban area (90% of it), therefore the countryside is getting reduced. Rotterdam, being the largest port in Europe, is also very harsh for the environment, and many factories are settled around it. Even the tulips, the beautiful tulip fields that I personally really like, are awful for the environment with a heavy use of pesticides (even though reduced in the past decade). A quarter of ground water contains high levels of pesticides as well.
Now writing this article got me all depressed, BUT this does not mean nothing can be done. As I said, the population seems to be aware of the climate risks and the situation can only improve. Keep riding your bikes and recycling people, it’s already a good start. Something that is also more and more developed nowadays are loose food products (often in organic supermarkets). You can bring your own bags but you can also use the paper ones there. This way, you avoid going home with pointless plastic bags. There is a lot of room for improvement, and the Netherlands seems to be on the right path.