ourEconomy: Opinion

Forget tulips and windmills, the Netherlands is the dirty old man of Europe

The Dutch image of a progressive paradise is just good PR – you only have to look at its record on the climate

Laura Basu
27 October 2021, 12.01am
The Netherlands is famous for its colourful Tulip fields
Baarssen Fokke / Alamy Stock Photo

Progressives in the UK and US often seem to think that if we only had proportional representation all our political woes would be solved. But if the Netherlands is anything to go by, think again. After seven months of political wrangling and two failed votes of no confidence in ‘caretaker’ prime minister Mark Rutte, it’s looking like the next Dutch cabinet will be made up of exactly the same parties as the last one. This is despite the fact that 71% of Dutch voters oppose carrying on as before.

The previous cabinet fell because of a scandal in which the tax office falsely accused tens of thousands of parents of child benefit fraud. The witch hunt left the victims – who were routinely ethnically profiled – with their lives in tatters. It was revealed last week that social services removed 1,115 children of victims from their homes between 2015 and 2020. In other news, the Pandora Papers revealed that leader of the Christian Democrats, Wopke Hoekstra, had invested tens of thousands of euros in a letterbox company (a type of company commonly used for tax avoidance) in the British Virgin Islands. Hoekstra continues as finance minister.

A recent study comparing public attitudes to Dutch government policy found that rich people who don't vote are better represented than middle and low earners who do vote. If middle and low earners’ preferences are represented in policy decisions at all, it is by coincidence, because their views happen to coincide with the views of the rich. The word for that is plutocracy.

And lest I get through an entire article about the Netherlands without mentioning them, let’s not forget that the extreme Right – representing antisemites, career Islamophobes and biological racists, homophobes and misogynists, climate deniers and Covid deniers – now occupy 20% of seats in the lower house.

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A friend who works in tax justice tells me that the country’s image is extremely important to Rutte, and he gets very upset when the Netherlands is described as a tax haven. But at this point, the image of the Netherlands as progressive, democratic and well put together, is just good PR.

Friends in the climate movement outside of the Netherlands often just assume that the country must be doing well when it comes to the environment. But the Netherlands ranks in the bottom three for renewable energy production in Europe. It reduced its CO2 emissions by 7% between 2009 and 2019, compared with an EU average of 10%, and the UK and Denmark at 23% and 25% respectively. It keeps the most livestock per square km of any country in the world.

Free markets

This record may surprise you, but it is entirely of a piece with a series of governments (the last three led by Rutte) that have prioritised the interests of big business above all else. Energy production began to be liberalised in the late 1990s, meaning that the government brought in laws to create a market and take the supply of energy out of its own control. This paved the way for privatisation and for multinationals to move in and take control of energy supply.

Putting energy in the hands of the private sector has led to some truly perverse outcomes. In 2015, the Netherlands became the last country in Europe to build new coal fired power stations – three of them. Then in 2019, the government was forced by its supreme court to drastically reduce carbon emissions, leading it to ban coal burning from 2030. The company Uniper wants €850m in compensation as a result, while another, RWE, is shooting for a cool €1.4bn. If granted, it will come out of the pockets of taxpayers. This hasn’t stopped these companies trying their luck for green subsidies to put into hydrogen and biomass side projects – energy sources that aren’t actually green.

The country has been hit hard by the gas crisis, with prices soaring 800% on the stock market since last year and many families falling into energy poverty. Due to the whims of a corporate-controlled energy landscape, the Netherlands is both a big importer and exporter of gas. Its own gas comes mainly from fields in the deprived north of the country, where decades of drilling by NAM, a joint venture between Shell and ExxonMobil, have triggered thousands of earthquakes that are destroying homes and making school buildings unsafe.

Rutte has finally been pressured into winding down gas drilling and paying compensation to the victims but he is now eyeing the region for a nuclear power plant and as a ‘hydrogen hub’. Until recently, NAM was responsible for assessing damage claims against itself. With government backing, NAM is now planning to ramp up gas drilling in the Wadden Sea – a UNESCO heritage site.

Climate injustice

Dutch climate policy is designed in such a way that taxpayers pay polluting companies to pollute. Dutch industry emits more than five times as much greenhouse gas as all Dutch households combined. Yet households pay more than five times as much energy tax as industry and power generators. The money raised from energy tax is supposed to go to sustainable energy projects. Research by the Transnational Institute (TNI) shows that energy company Vattenfall Nederland and its subsidiaries, owned by the Swedish government, received €536m from the tax between 2015 and 2020, in addition to a pledged €915m for projects planned in the coming years. In that time the company has slashed the proportion of sustainable energy it produces in the Netherlands by half, from 12% to 6%.

All in all, big polluting companies get €8bn in government handouts every year. In the words of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, this is Kafkaesque, yo.

This climate injustice is replicated on an international level. As a coloniser, the Netherlands owes a climate debt to the rest of the world. Instead, we are taking up other people’s carbon space. The Dutch carbon ‘carrying capacity’ is 0.9 hectares per person, but we use 5.9 hectares per person – meaning that we are emitting much more than our fair share of CO2.

Fossil fuel kingpin Shell has had a long and tangled relationship with the Dutch state, based on colonial violence, since it became Royal Dutch Shell in 1907. Allegations about Shell’s involvement in the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni 9 in Nigeria are well known. The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) further documents the role played by Shell in colonial projects in Indonesia, South Africa, Mozambique and Canada. The Dutch state continues to prop up Shell and other fossil fuel giants to the tune of billions, despite them being failing companies – including $2.4bn for carbon capture and storage projects which the journal Nature has described as ‘magical thinking’.

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With an election around the corner, the country’s image as the prefect of Europe is starting to slip

From the courts to the streets

If you, like myself, are desperately looking for some hope on the climate, it might be found in actions not by the government but against the government and its business partners. In May 2021, Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) won a historic court ruling forcing Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. In January a Dutch court also ordered Shell to pay compensation to Nigerian farmers for oil spills that have ruined their land.

These results followed a previous landmark ruling in 2015 ordering the Dutch government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 compared to 1990 levels. Instead of embracing the decision, Rutte cabinets spent their efforts fighting it until the Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 2019. This forced the aforementioned coal ban. The government might have met its mandated 2020 target by a squeak – but only because of the coronavirus pandemic. They will certainly not do so in 2021. It is likewise only through court orders that gas drilling in Groningen is finally being phased out and that the government is taking measures to slash the country’s dangerous levels of nitrogen pollution.

But many activists say that court rulings are not enough, especially with governments and corporations that are determined to thwart them. Young and old are taking to the streets, using some creative methods and with some impressive results. At Shell’s 2021 shareholders meeting, the action group #ShellMustFall dressed as construction workers, performed taking a wrecking ball to the Shell headquarters and informed local residents that the offices would be taken down to make place for an International Tribunal for Climate Justice.

The collective of artists and activists Fossil Free Culture NL has been staging artistic interventions at cultural institutions since 2016 to free the country from ‘artwashing’ – where polluting companies partner with cultural institutions to ‘clean’ their image. To date, they have managed to persuade the Van Gogh Museum, the National Concert Hall and the Science Museum to end their partnerships with Shell.

The movement is building and diversifying. During COP26, it is here you will most likely find intelligent thinking and creative solutions – not in the corridors of power.

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