ourEconomy: Opinion

How climate policy stops at the border

The Port of Rotterdam boasts of its green credentials in the Netherlands but invests in fossil fuel mega projects abroad.

Ilona Hartlief Rhodante Ahlers
26 February 2020
Image: Frans Berkelaar, CC by 2.0

This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Decolonising the economy' series.

As the largest European port and tenth largest in the world, the Rotterdam port currently accounts for 20% of Dutch energy consumption. Its most important customer is the fossil fuel industry.

The company operating the port, Port of Rotterdam (PoR), has an ambition to align with the Paris Agreement, and has presented a step-by-step plan to become a “sustainable and CO2 neutral” port by 2050. But a new study by SOMO shows that this progressive climate policy stops at the border, and only concerns its activities in the Netherlands. Internal policy documents show that the PoR is actively looking for commitments from oil companies or coal-fired power stations for its international projects in Brazil and Indonesia.

PoR’s international strategy states that foreign projects offer opportunities to strengthen Rotterdam’s competitive position in addition to generating new revenue models. As such, the PoR developed plans for a port-industrial complex in Kuala Tanjung in Indonesia. Although PoR has refused to allow access to the feasibility studies, various sources show the inclusion of a coal-fired power plant and possibly a coal terminal in the project plans. This coal-fired power plant is planned to provide various future industrial clusters (metal and petrochemical) with electricity. In their response to SOMO, PoR states that Indonesia “will unfortunately be dependent on fossil fuels for a longer period of time.”

In Brazil, PoR is involved in port development in Porto Central and Pecem. Due to its strategic location in relation to oil and gas fields, Porto Central hopes to be able to recruit the most important players in the Brazilian fossil industry as customers. Porto Central will offer these companies distribution and storage facilities for oil and the port will be dredged and made accessible for the largest oil tankers. The report of PoR’s shareholder meeting on January 10, 2019 shows that PoR itself actively sought ‘oil commitments’ for the Brazilian project.

According to SOMO, this practice does not align with the Paris Agreements. As long as the fossil fuel industry plays a central role in international projects, this will exacerbate climate change. The projects developed by the PoR make countries dependent on the fossil industry for decades to come. Once a coal terminal has been built, it must be used for at least twenty years to get the return on the investment.

Ports are developing into mega projects with major impacts on people and the environment

These new port developments are mega projects that radically change the social and physical environment. Although the activities generated by these ports promise employment and new sources of income, they are accompanied by a loss in diversity of income sources, land expropriation and social disruption. The subsequent profound changes to ecosystems, such as mangrove forests, result in a cascade of biodiversity loss.

The adverse effects for people and the environment are not limited to the port area alone. Ports are nodes in global value chains. They open up the hinterland and promote the development of transport infrastructure, and with it the increase in the supply of goods. Although PoR emphasises that its involvement in international projects leads to positive results, SOMO has asked for whom these results are positive, and how these positive results compare to the negative consequences. What a company defines as a positive result may be in stark contrast to the local population’s assessment.

SOMO shows that a narrow focus on CO2 emissions within national boundaries does little to tackle the challenges that climate change produces. Instead, a just transition demands a structural transformation with a global focus that scrutinises our current system of production, reproduction and consumption, including underlying unequal social relationships. Instead of the distracting metrics of CO2, the energy transition demands equal access and democratic control over energy based on ecological integrity.

Furthermore, rather than locking countries into decades of fossil dependency, SOMO advocates a transition that takes into account past injustices, the prevention of future injustices and compensation for the most affected. This requires a shift of socio-economic priorities from economic growth towards prosperity that is accessible to all in a healthy environment. The goal is a society in which development is not imposed but is determined, and where value is not extracted but redistributed.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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