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10-Month Deadline Makes Netherlands a ‘Test Case’ for Rapid Decarbonization

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The Netherlands has become a reluctant test case for how quickly a government can cut its carbon emissions when it’s required to, after the supreme court ruled late last year that the country must cut its greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020. 

“Activists in a packed chamber of the Supreme Court in The Hague erupted into applause and cheers as Presiding Judge Kees Streefkerk rejected the government’s appeal against earlier rulings” ordering the rapid emissions cuts, The Associated Press reported at the time. Urgenda, the Dutch climate and sustainability organization that shepherded the case through the process of trial and appeal, “hailed the ruling as ‘a groundbreaking decision that confirms that individual governments must do their fair share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions’.”

Now, the conservative government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte faces what Climate Home News calls a “daunting task”, with official data showing a reduction of only 15% at the end of 2018. That means “sharp cuts will be needed in an economy where major emission sources are manufacturing, energy generation, transport, and agriculture.”

While the high court said the government had a lot of scope to decide its path to the 2020 goal, Climate Home reports the country’s per capita emissions are among the highest in Europe, at 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide or equivalent, and they’ve scarcely changed in the last 10 years.

“It really is a test case for very rapid emission reductions,” said former UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres. “Of course, The Netherlands is actually quite vulnerable because quite a lot of the territory is below sea level. This is in their interest to do so.”

She added that other countries will be watching how the country responds, knowing that they also face similar, deep cuts to help get humanity on a path to stabilizing average global warming at 1.5°C. “According to UN Environment’s latest emissions gap report, this will require unprecedented global greenhouse gas cuts of 7.6% a year over the next decade,” Climate Home notes.

So far, the Netherlands government has committed to develop new greenhouse gas reduction measures and keep the parliament posted, with the next update expected this month. But with just 10 months to go, an Urgenda representative said the audacious target is still achievable.

“The unfortunate thing is they postponed for too long,” he said. “They could have started in 2015….But if they look seriously at the list of measures we provided to them, they can do this.”

Working with about 800 stakeholders, Climate Home says, Urgenda developed a menu of climate rapid responses the government could consider, including reducing the livestock sector, boosting the efficiency of industrial electricity generation, managing forests more sustainably, and shutting the country’s last three coal plants ahead of schedule.

Urgenda legal counsel Dennis Van Berkel pointed to a recent, unpopular decision to reduce roadway speed limits, following a separate court decision on nitrogen oxide emissions, as proof that fast change is possible.

“The same government that increased the maximum speed and promoted it as one of its national achievements…now lowered the maximum speed,” he said. “It shows that if you really want to, you can do things that have never been done before.”

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 9, 2020

“It really is a test case for very rapid emission reductions,” said former UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres. “Of course, The Netherlands is actually quite vulnerable because quite a lot of the territory is below sea level. This is in their interest to do so.”

Rapid decarbonization is going to quickly become the name of the game, and it's good to have a 'pilot' of sorts-- but I also worry about what happens in the not entirely unlikely event of failure to reach those goals. Will that lack of reaching goals be used as an excuse by critics to not pursue such decarbonization in the future? Will it undermine the end goals? 

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