Enough of the climate fever

by: Hans van Cleef

Hans van Cleef: “The Dutch climate agreement was never going to please everyone, but is a reasonable compromise”

When I look back to 2018 I see many welcome developments. At the same time I am getting more and more worried. Some examples of positive developments are for instance the spectacular rise in sales of new electric cars in the Netherlands (the market share rose from 1.9% in 2017 to 4.4% in 2018), the worlds’ first offshore wind park built without subsidy, and – for me somewhat closer to home – that ABN AMRO has adopted sustainability as one of its focus areas.

Another success in my view was the preliminary outcome of the Dutch climate agreement. Characteristic of the so-called Dutch poldermodel is that a consensus must be found amongst parties wanting to accelerate developments and parties who opt for a slower transition path. As a result, we knew beforehand that the outcome would be by definition something not ideal, and would not result in the optimal outcome for anyone. The climate agreement, with a focus on the period 2023-2030, proved to be a good starting point to reduce carbon emissions in the Netherlands. In just ten months’ time, six hundred sub-agreements have been made between all kind of parties which normally do not pursue the same results. I view this as impressive, despite the cost and benefit analyses currently put forward by CPB and PBL.

So, why am I also worried? That has everything to do with the intensification of the debate, politicization of the subject, polarization of many parties involved and the enormous risk that this entails for the necessary social support. I call this climate fever, or better for Twitter: #climatefever. In their attempts to make themselves heard many media, politicians and representatives of NGO’s, companies and the industry use more and more words and half-truths which only divides society further. Words or statements like climate hysteria, climate craziness, VanGasLos (get-rid-of-gas), but also vliegschaamte (shaming those who fly), and transitieremmer (transition obstructionist) do not add anything to the discussion. They don’t trigger support to speed up the energy transition, or to fight climate change. Rather, these words only contribute to the polarisation of the debate and harden opposition, and appear aimed at just pleasing their existing supporters.

Examples of half-truths are for instance saying that: the Netherlands should ban gas immediately, that the Netherlands is running behind the rest of Europe regarding the energy transition, that everybody in Sweden has to pay a carbon price of EUR 137 (while the industry also falls under the rules of the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), and thus pays EUR 25). At the same time, saying that climate change does not exist and that we cannot contribute meaningfully is not only false, but also further inhibits social acceptance. Saying that the industry does not contribute and only receives subsidies is a half-truth as many large investments in renewables and efficiency come from the industry. This not only hurts the image of these companies, but also hurts their staff members. Half-truths hurts the one thing we need so much: social acceptance.

To make a big success of the climate agreement this #climatefever must disappear and social acceptance must increase significantly. This means that for instance businesses and the industry need to act faster than they normally would. It also means that a large part of the investments needed should come from these companies and yes, a part of that will be charged to the end-users. In exchange for this we get what we’re good at in the Netherlands: building knowledge which we eventually can export. These investments are therefore not only good to speed up the battle against climate change but also contribute to the development of future proof business models. And the higher costs for the citizens and be partly compensated via tax policy. Whether there will be a compensation, and if so how big this will be is a political decision and should, in my view, be seen as separate from climate policy.

At the same time this means that NGOs should take a critical look at their roles. Until relatively recently, raising alarm was their core business, but this role is changing. Calling for action has become more difficult as everybody has already started. Not signing the climate agreement is a missed opportunity in my view. Everybody knew beforehand that NGOs could never be satisfied with the final result of the negotiations. Nevertheless, the role of the NGOs is crucial to raise the bar to a level which goes beyond feeling comfortable, or in other words to push it to the limits. In the future, NGOs need to continue to challenge business and the industries in a constructive way. To maintain influence, this is precisely their own challenge: to remain constructive.

However, the biggest challenge lies with the politicians. Their role is to create and to maintain public acceptance of their climate policy. In the Netherlands there are always elections ahead. With the next elections in March, further politicization of the climate and energy debate is likely. The overwhelming bulk of political parties have the same goal: reaching the Paris climate goals. Emphasizing the color of your political party is obviously fine, but when you push this too far it can be counterproductive. A famous slogan from 1991 is ‘a better environment starts with yourself’, however, a successful climate policy – and the support for this – starts with government. The focus should therefore be on climate policy that achieves as much CO2 reduction as possible in the most efficient and economic manner. Because that is what we are all aiming for, right?


This column has been published earlier in Dutch here: Energiepodium.nl