Dutch coal developments are off the Urgenda
The Netherlands has seen several brand new coal plants come online since 2010. But at least one will have to be closed if the Dutch government is to affordably meet climate change targets, according to a leaked report by environmental consultant CE Delft.
The report claims that closing just one of the plants would be the most cost-effective way of meeting the Netherlands’ target of a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, costing households €30 per year – as opposed to costs of between €50 and €80 for alternative reduction methods.
It adds to the pile of evidence that forging ahead with unsustainable energy developments exposes countries worldwide to the risk of stranded assets.
Background: The Urgenda case
Dutch NGO Urgenda Foundation made headlines around the world last year when, with 900 Dutch citizens, it brought a successful legal challenge against the Netherlands government for failing to take sufficient measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By doing so, it was decided, the government was breaching its duty of care to Dutch citizens.
At the time of the ruling, the Netherlands had plans in place to cut national emissions by 14-17%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2020. The Court instead ordered a reduction of 25%, the lowest recognised standard for a developed country.
The Netherlands is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events and rising sea waters, with around 26% of the country below sea level, and 29% susceptible to river flooding. The Urgenda case acknowledged this vulnerability.
Part of the case was argued on the basis that by failing to implement sufficient emissions reduction measures to contain global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius, the government of the Netherlands was failing to meet its duty of care to its citizens. That included future generations of Dutch society who may be exposed to the worst consequences of climate change.
The Urgenda case was interesting in that the national court referenced international law principles such as cooperation, intergenerational equity and the precautionary principle to support its judgment.
Current plans inadequate
The Dutch government has lodged an appeal against the ruling, but by Dutch law, the government is legally bound to comply with the court’s ruling in the meantime. And it has publicly stated that it will. Even so, CO2 emissions in the Netherlands were up by 5% in 2015, with power stations burning a record amount of coal.
Dutch Minister for Economic Affairs Henk Kamp has set out an action plan to work towards the 25% target, which includes closing two old coal-fired power stations, and working on carbon capture and storage (CCS) strategies, which are not yet scientifically proven to be effective.
Cutting out coal more cost effective
A report published in July and commissioned by the Dutch government showed that closing all five operational power plants would reduce emissions in the country by 31%, without jeopardising energy supply. Greenpeace believes that closing all five coal plants would cost the average Dutch household just €14 a year. While the recent CE Delft report estimated the costs slightly higher, this evidence clearly shows that closing coal plants is the most cost-effective way to reach clean energy targets. Continued investment in the coal sector comes with the risk that these plants will become stranded assets, with investors unable to recoup their costs as the world turns to cleaner, safer technologies.
Coal maintenance is madness
In spite of the evidence – and last year’s legal action – the Dutch government continues to bury its head in the sand. It has said it “would be crazy” to close the new coal plants. Meanwhile, the owners of the plants have threatened to take legal action if the government orders their closure. But coal has no place in the modern energy mix. While newer plants might pollute less than the old ones (if we are to believe the Dutch government), the idea of “clean coal” is quite clearly an oxymoron.
On current estimations, the Netherlands is on track to reduce emissions by only 17% by 2020. This means the country will be defying orders of its own national court in the Urgenda case; it will be breaching its international responsibilities; and most seriously, it will be jeopardising the future of its citizens and the safety and security of generations to come.
The Dutch parliament has just passed a motion supporting the 25% emissions cut by 2020 – and pushing for an increased target of 55% by 2030. They recommended phasing out coal as the best way to achieve this. It remains to be seen how the government will respond.
As the controversy around these plants continues, the message to other governments should be clear: coal developments mean stranded assets.