Amsterdam is not doing enough to combat climate change

Unfortunately, the recently released IPPC reports tell us little news: We are (still) rapidly disrupting the climate and endangering life on earth. There is no other option than to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. That is not going so well in Amsterdam, despite great promises from the city council.

By: Mischa Meerburg

An often heard argument: ‘all the effort we make here is just a drop in the ocean’ Not only is this way of reasoning lazy and cowardly, it is also incorrect. Donald Pols of the Milieudefensie  recently pointed out quite rightly that the Netherlands is not a small country at all, at least when it comes to climate change. We are a global player in oil, coal, factory farming, (fossil)capital and more. Moreover, it is industrialized, well-fed and educated countries that will have to show what a modern low-carbon economy looks like. Not just with words, but with deeds.

We are good at setting clear goals, but saying goodbye to fossil fuels also means saying goodbye to the associated political culture. And that’s where the issue lies.

Roaring ambitions, smoking chimneys
Our city council has (on paper) the greatest ambitions to make the city climate neutral, but at the same time Amsterdam has the second largest coal port in Europe and we are an important storage place for natural gas and oil (petroleum).  The municipality of Amsterdam is 100% shareholder of this undertaking. The decision to stop transhipment of coal by 2040 has been a brave step, however, according to the Amsterdam harbor policies, petroleum and LNG transhipment are allowed to continue until 2050! At the same time, the municipality wants all homes to be natural gas-free by 2040. That is a crooked situation.

This way ordinary citizens quickly get the feeling that the moral responsibility of the transition is on their shoulders, while the major polluters are spared. 
And then there is the Amsterdam Waste Incineration Plant (AEB) . There are still no concrete plans to shut down the largest CO2-canon in Amsterdam. That means that we will have to import  even more large quantities of waste from abroad (until 2050) to burn here locally. It then becomes difficult for the municipality to motivate people to separate their waste locally. A classic example of self-undermining that only makes a challenging transition even more complicated.

In addition, the AEB is being put up for sale. This means that applying CO2 capture (CCS) becomes a decision of the new owner. As a result, the municipality loses control over the largest CO2 emitter on Amsterdam territory. This also applies to the brand-new biomass power station, which emits more CO2 per kWh generated than the (now closed) coal-fired power station on Hemweg. Ironically, this power station was built right next to the old coal-fired power station. In this way we literally exchange one polluting chimney for another.

Explosive growth
We also notice that the many climate-friendly ambitions fundamentally clash with a very  persistent ideology: According to our city council, creating economic growth should simply be allowed to continue unbridled. For example, the Amsterdam Economic Board decided that no fewer than 2000 additional data companies should establish themselves on Amsterdam territory by 2025. It is no secret that the datacenter-lobby is a big proponent of the idea that Amsterdam should be a so called ‘digital innovation hub’. The council defends this  because they believe that facilitating tech-companies will create jobs and stimulate the “creative economy”.

Although the word ‘sustainable’ is mentioned often enough in the policy plans, all of this has very little to with sustainability. 

The planned growth of the data companies will double the number of data centers in the city. Data centers already consume more electricity than all Amsterdam households put together. A doubling would mean that it would be impossible for our city to achieve its climate goals. I am not saying that, that is the conclusion of CE Delft, the  same scientific bureau that is hired to monitor the effects of the
Amsterdam climate policy decisions.  To make matters worse, data centers also endanger our clean drinking water supply and cause congestion on the electricity network.

This approach to economic growth is now suprise, considering our municipal advisory board; The Amsterdam Economic Board is a collaboration between Amsterdam, Dutch Royal Shell, Schiphol, ING, KPN and Ahold. These are not exactly companies that have an interest in a radically different economic course or any kind of meaningful system change. Because, if they where it would have happened by now, considering how much power these entities hold over the dutch political-economic system. These are companies that want to grow, develop new business models and put profit accumulation above all else. That is simply how they operate.

This probably also explains the unambitious course with regard to phasing out petroleum and LNG in the Port as mentioned earlier. It’s not really transparent either. There are no public records of what fossil fuel companies and multinationals advises our municipality, and how this affects policy.

Much more can be done, and much more must be done. This council has made the historic decision to no longer allow fossil advertising in metro stations such as oil products and cheap air travel. A nice step, but unfortunately we will not make it with symbolic measures. If we really take climate change seriously, we will stop making exceptions for certain sectors. Then we will also tackle the biggest polluters the hardest.

That means: the end of corporate lobbyisme and non-binding agreements with polluting companies. That also means: making agreements and handing out fines as soon as these agreements cannot be met. It is therefore not appropriate that platforms such as the Amsterdam Eonomic board – which is therefore full of big energy consumers and polluters – should be allowed to advise our city on how to achieve economic growth. It is the turkey that gets to decide what to put on the table for Christmas. Breaking up with the fossil boys may be a lot less fun, but a lot more effective.

This also increases support for climate measures among ordinary Amsterdammers. Decisiveness from the government is always more inspiring than endless so called “participatory processes” and contrived variations on the citizen panel as it is now proposed by the council.

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