The Netherlands is the country where all passenger trains are powered by wind energy, where your groceries can be delivered by all-electric vans, and where people cycle over solar bike lanes, so the Dutch must be sustainability champions, no?
The fact of the matter is that the Dutch are not, not even close. Compared to its fellow EU member states, the Netherlands comes in at an embarrassingly low 26th position in terms of the share of renewables in the energy mix. In 2014, 5.5% of the Netherlands’ energy was generated sustainably. Out of the 28 EU countries, only Malta (4.7%) and Luxembourg (4.5%) performed worse. But those have very few inhabitants and small territories, Luxembourg being a landlocked city-state and Malta a densely populated island with a much lower per capita income than the Dutch.
By other measures, the Netherlands is not doing any better. In a 2015 report by the European Energy Agency, the Netherlands was found to be the only EU member state who was not on track for reaching the EU-wide targets set under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which is the European Commission’s program for ensuring the EU as a whole will reach 20% renewable energy by 2020 and 27% by 2030. According to the same report, the Netherlands is falling increasingly behind, as a year before there were still several other countries that were below their trajectory for reaching the RED targets. The targets themselves are different for each member state, depending on what can “realistically” be achieved from the nation’s starting position. As depicted below, the Dutch target is already substantially under the 20% average.
That these targets themselves are fair and moderate is proven by the performance of many other included countries: 20 out of the 28 members are exceeding them.
Undeniably, the energy sector is but one factor, though a significant part of the country’s overall sustainability performance. A more complete picture is provided by the level of overall carbon emissions per inhabitant. Using World Bank Data, it becomes clear that Dutch CO2 emissions per capita were 50% above the average of the European Union in 2013. The gap has only been widening during the last decennia.
It is true that per capita income levels are also significantly higher in the Netherlands, but this is roughly a 40% difference, meaning that it is not just the greater height of Dutch income levels that accounts for the increase. Even aside from that, the Dutch economy is scoring substantially lower on carbon efficiency.
In recent years, the share of renewables has been shockingly stagnant. From 2014 to 2016, the number had only grown a meager 0.4 percentage points to 5.9%. Although great projects are in the pipeline, wind and solar make up a futile part of the energy mix. The share of Dutch renewables thus comes from other sources, in particular biomass, but as political momentum is building up to refunnel subsidies towards wind and solar, bio energy hasn’t been flourishing.
Renewable energy consumption by source:
In defense of the Dutch, our high population density sometimes poses a problem to locating new wind or solar farms, and the Netherlands’ lack of hills means hydropower is not as readily available as it is in countries like Norway or Sweden. But the issue seems to go deeper. The Netherlands has for the past decennia been ruled by somewhat conservative center-right parties, which have never been too interested in novel renewable energy technologies. Besides, the Netherlands’ great wealth of natural gas, being home to the largest European natural gas field and the world’s 10th largest natural gas field, in addition to plenty of oil wells offshore in the North Sea, has contributed to its fossil fuel dependency.
But despite its monumentally meager sustainability progress, the Netherlands has succeeded in keeping up a prodigious eco-friendly image. The Dutch are widely regarded as a sustainable people who cycle everywhere and get all their electricity from wind power, who drive electric cars and must consequently have a low carbon footprint. Partially this can be ascribed to some genuinely great marketing. An example is this fabulous website, aimed at getting Tesla to erect a factory in the Netherlands.
But, chiefly, the Dutch sustainability image probably comes from its large numbers of bicyclists, the large number of traditional windmills, and the country’s reputation for innovation and a progressive business and social climate, making for a country that is constantly coming up with new tech or concepts to save the planet for less money. The Netherlands is home to a superbly educated population, creating customers who care about the environmental impact of their purchases and forcing businesses to be sustainable, or at least to appear to be so. That’s why Dutch trains run on wind power and Amsterdam airport taxis are fully electric Teslas. However, those efforts don’t make a dramatic dent in the country’s overall emissions.
The Netherlands is abounding in innovative initiatives from citizens and entrepreneurs who are endeavoring to boost sustainability and drive down the costs of eco-friendly alternatives to traditional practices. These efforts have not only internationally been recognized, but have created the image that the Dutch economy itself too, including its energy supply, is a low-carbon Eldorado. Unfortunately the opposite is true, and although gigawatts of wind and solar capacity are in the pipeline, the Netherlands is, and in the near future likely will be, one of the most unsustainable economies of Europe.