The Netherlands’ radical, practical green plan – national program for sustainable economic growth – includes related information
IN THE WAKE OF THE EARTH SUMMIT in 1992, while most nations were still just talking “sustainability,” the Netherlands already had a program in place to make it real. Their National Environmental Policy Plan (“NEPP” or “Green Plan” for short) is still the world’s most advanced national program for creating an economy that doesn’t destroy the environment. It’s the green equivalent of trying to put a man on the moon.
In just one generation, by the year 2010, the Dutch intend to slash their production of many types of pollution by 70 to 90 percent — while doubling the size of their economy (as measured by Gross Domestic Product). And they expect to invest less than 3 percent of their GDP annually in the process. If it works, the Dutch plan will obviate the old debate about economic growth versus environmental protection, and result in the world’s first sustainable economy.
The Dutch were stirred into action out of clear environmental necessity. In 1988 Queen Beatrix, in her annual Christmas message, alerted the nation to what she had been reading in a landmark environmental report called Concern for Tomorrow. The report scientifically catalogued a host of trends that rang loud alarms about Holland’s environmental health, and it galvanized the nation (see “Zeehandencreche”). For the next several years, the environment ranked first in national polls on the most important issues of the day. In response to this outpouring of scientific and public concern, the Dutch enacted their first Green Plan in 1989. NEPP and its even tougher sequel, NEPP 2, gave the Dutch government sweeping new powers to rewrite and enforce environmental laws; to invest large amounts of money in research and redesign; and to find new ways of coordinating public and private actions. NEPP was badly needed. Holland is one of the world’s most crowded nations, with about 1,145 people per square mile (compared to the US figure of 70). By 2010, they will be sharing their small country with seven million cars, fifteen million cows and 450 million chickens. Much of the Dutch economy is tied to intensive agriculture, chemical production, and heavy industry, and to Holland’s position as the transportation hub of Europe. Their “environmental space” — a measure of the land’s capacity to sustain a given population — is tiny, and well past full.
To meet the ambitious goals set by Dutch scientists in Concern for Tomorrow, planners relied on a new approach: voluntary “covenants’ with industry groups and other sectors responsible for pollution. The Netherlands already had some of Europe’s most stringent environmental laws — but they weren’t working. Holland’s progressive bureaucrats acknowledged the limitations of trying to regulate complex and interwoven environmental problems on an issue-by-issue basis. Instead, they evaluated all major environmental problems and the steps that would be necessary to alleviate them. Then they identified which players had a hand in making these problems worse, sat them down at the negotiating table and said, “Look, for the good of your children and grandchildren, you have to meet these targets. We don’t care how you achieve them, within the limits of the law. But we want you to commit to meeting the goals we’ve set.”
Target groups, representing all major industrial, governmental, and citizens’ groups involved in the problem, were identified for eight theme areas (see “Eight Points”). The government provided the timetables and the targets under each theme; the target groups would hammer out a way to make them happen. They would be free to pursue whatever new, policies or technologies they found effective, but there would be stiff penalties for failure. Industry groups willingly signed the new covenants with government — in part because they shared the national concern for Holland’s future, and in part because there would never be a better deal. One Dutch environmental official has called the covenants “coercive voluntary agreements.”
As Hans van Zijst, former Dutch environmental liaison to the US, explained, this is classic carrot-and-stick planning. “The question is,” van Zijst said, “how far can you get without the stick?”
There is a very big stick. Not only were penalties for prohibited activities made more severe, but the government literally put more cops on the beat. The Netherlands is probably the first country in the world to have not only agencies dedicated to enforcing environmental laws, but an environmental police force, with special courts and prosecutors. Imagine a smaller-scale “war drugs” — except instead of kicking in suspected drug-dealers’ doors, this force wades around in streams sampling effluent from waste pipes.
But targets were hardly crammed down industry’s throat. Many of Holland’s leading industrialists say they like the idea. First, they game a large degree of certainty about long-term environmental policy — a certainty that allows them to make investments in pollution prevention technologies with more confidence. Second, they gained the freedom to tackle the problems in the ways that made the most sense for their businesses. This “customized implementation” approach has allowed the Dutch to avoid the excesses of inappropriate regulations that plague industries in the US, while preserving the core of important environmental law unchallenged.
Finally, and most importantly, industry is learning that more efficient, environmentally sound products and processes make companies more competitive than their rivals. If the Dutch seize the chance to create innovative solutions to environmental problems at home, they will have a lock on a much-needed group of new products to sell abroad.
In order for this approach to work, the government needed to help create long-term solutions. Four steps were identified as particularly important for making sustainability achievable: integrated lifecycle management, energy conservation, sustainable technologies, and improving public awareness.
Integrated lifecycle management closes resource “loops” by making producers responsible for whatever remains of their products after the user (rather than “consumer”) is through with them. Because producers are required to dispose of these remains, they’re a lot more likely to design products and packaging that can be re-used or recycled. One example of this principle is the new auto disassembly plant, which strips cars down to their component parts after their useful lives are over.
Energy conservation is another key strategy for making industries competitive and lowering the environmental costs of production. Recognizing that efficiency and conservation are often the best buys in energy, the Dutch government has committed $385 million per year to conservation programs. Meanwhile, research into renewable energy moves forward steadily, especially in the field of wind energy — the Dutch have a traditional affinity for windmills.
However, while “better mousetraps” already exist in many cases (for example, lightbulbs and cars), often these more sustainable technologies are either not widely available or simply haven’t been invented. NEPP takes as one of its central responsibilities the development of new, more environmentally friendly technologies, and the widespread adoption of technologies already available. To those ends, the government has launched a crash program in developing sustainable technologies, including one university program looking at the technologies that serve our basic needs — from housing to transport to sewage treatment — and redesigning them from the ground up.
But perhaps most important to building support for these changes is increasing public awareness. For several years the government has been engaged in a massive public education program, involving local ecology centers, environmental groups, schools and the media. MTV-style television ads have built awareness of general problems and specific challenges, and brought home the actions each individual could take to make things better. The Green Plan’s national slogan — “A better environment begins with you” — is now more widely recognized than the most popular brand of beer.
But is the plan working?
Certainly there have been impressive successes in some fields. Many of the target groups have come close to meeting their goals, on schedule. Some have even exceeded them. An enormous amount of research on environmental initiatives has been generated, from all branches of the government and the private sector. There are new ecologically sound housing developments, bicycle-dominated cities, a move to switch the nation’s intensive agriculture to an organic model. One enterprising businessman even has a plan for transporting the country’s excess pig manure to India as fertilizer.
But other themes and target groups have proved more intractable. CO2 production, for example, continues to rise, fueled by increased trade through Holland’s enormous part and growing Dutch fleet of automobiles. Reaching a few large producers (like chemical producers) has proven relatively easy compared to changing consumer behavior, or the way small retailers do business. Officials privately concede that some of the more ambitious targets will have to be revised downward or even abandoned.
These early signs of erosion in NEPP’s basic commitments have environmental groups — who have largely been supportive of the Plan — extremely worried. But then, it’s their job to be worried: most major environmental groups receive significant funding from the government, which very much wants them to play that role. The money comes without strings attached in the hopes that they will strongly criticize the government for not going far enough, and be a counterbalancing force to industry groups, who often complain that the Plan goes too far.
Still, some Dutch activists have recently moved beyond criticism to disillusionment. Many feel caught in the bind of having to defend NEPP as a progressive step, while they themselves feel the Plan will not ultimately lead to true sustainability. “We are very disappointed,” says Maria Kronendonk, head of National Environmental Forum (LMO in Dutch) and a leading critic of the Plan. “The idea of environmental planning in the economy is not having much impact on industry. We have the feeling we’ve been used.” “Don’t call it the Green Plan,” said Ralph Hallo of the Foundation for Nature and Environment, a large citizens’ group. Because of its compromises with industrial development, “It’s more like the Gray Plan.”
Other factors are adding to the drag on NEPP implementation. One is the sudden erosion of some sectors of public support for environmental causes. When NEPP was drafted, the environment topped the list of public concerns in the Netherlands. Now crime, blamed on the rising tide of immigrants from Eastern Europe, has taken its place. Making matters worse, many rural residents blamed the recent floods on environmentalists’ opposition to dike enhancement programs on grounds of habitat protection — though most scientists lay the blame on upstream deforestation. Finally, many observers perceive that a mild backlash is brewing in industry circles to some of the most ambitious parts of the NEPP program, especially its call for an energy tax to reduce CO2 emissions.
But such twists and turns are probably to be expected. After all, the Dutch are in the midst of a public exercise in national soul-searching about some of the most important issues a country can debate: What is the best life for our citizens? What should we do to prosper? What is our purpose as a country? It’s a debate we might do well to join on our side of the pond.
RELATED ARTICLE: Eight Points
NEPP identifies eight “themes,” or areas of importance, and organizes environmental policy around them:
[check] Climate Change (global warming and ozone depletion)
[check] Acidification (acid rain)
[check] Eutrophication (excess nutrients from fertilizers and manure)
[check] Dispersion (toxic chemicals in water, air and soil)
[check] Waste disposal (garbage, waste prevention, re-use and recycling)
[check] Local nuisance (noise and odor pollution and other annoyances)
[check] Groundwater depletion
[check] Squandering (the unsustainable use of renewable and non-renewable resources)
RELATED ARTICLE: The Netherlands’ National Environmental Policy Plan II
This is the English-language version of the Plan. It is dense with information and well worht looking at, and it’s free. Get one for a library or school near you.
The Royal Netherlands Embassy Office for Health and Environment 4200 Wisconsin Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 (202) 244-5300
RELATED ARTICLE: Green Plans on the Internet
World Wide Web–Use a WWW browser, such as Lynx, Netscape, or Mosaic, to open the location: http://www.rri:org
Gopher–Use a gopher client to open: gopher,rri.org Email–Information from the servers is also available by email. For instructions, send Internet email to firstname.lastname@example.org
RELATED ARTICLE: Zeehondencreche
In 1988, an epidemic killed 17,000 seals in the North Sea. Many of those seals washed up dead on the beaches of Holland. The official cause of death was an outbreak of Morbillivirus, a germ that also causes human measles and canine distemper. But the Dutch knew the real killer was industrial pollution. Scientists later confirmed that toxins in the water (and thus in the fish) depressed the seals’ immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to infection. When the Netherlands’ beloved Queen Beatrix gave her now-famous Christmas 1988 speech, in which she warned her countrymen that “The Earth is slowly dying,” many still had the news foot-age of dead seals in mind.
It shouldn’t take a mass die-off of Zeehonden (“sea dogs” to the Dutch) to call attention to serious environmental problems–and sometimes it doesn’t. If you’re Leni `t Hart, one sick seal will do. `t Hart is the founder of the Zeehondencreche, more formally known as the Seal Research and Rehabilitation Centre, in the tiny north-coast hamlet of Pieterburen. She is neither a veterinarian nor a biologist, but she has two key talents, in addition to her passionate commitment to saving seals; she knows how to motivate people, and she knows how to get media attention. When a rare Mediterranean monk seal washed up sick in the Greek Islands, she turned a high-tech, international, first-of-its-kind rescue and rehabilitation into a television teach-in on the sorry state of the Mediterranean Sea. Now Greece has its own seal rescue program, with volunteers scattered throughout the islands.
Zeehondencreche is a popular tourist destination in Holland, as well as a magnet for volunteers. Young veterinary students, veteran vets who usually treat cows or cats, and serious scientists all come to do research and help rehabilitate sick or injured seals. While the volunteers feed pureed fish meal to the new arrivals in intensive care, visitors can watch through windows in the visitors center. Seals who survive go on to the outdoor tanks, where they get fattened up in preparation for their release to the wild. In addition to cooing at the charismatic megafauna, visitors also get an education in how toxins get concentrated on their way up the food chain. A 3-D model in the center’s atrium depicts molecules of poison as little red lights, moving in a spiral from protozoa to krill to fish to seals and making ever-greater clumps as they go. “We don’t want to be a zoo,” says Lies Vedder, the center’s head veterinarian for most of its history. “It’s in fact a hospital, and you are welcome to visit it.”
The continuous stream of sick and dying seals, whose diet of bottom-feeders in the shallow Waddenzee makes them especially susceptible to environmental pollution, is a stark reminder to the Dutch of what the stakes are in the Green Plan game. And should they forget, `t Hart and Vedder will remind them: “We try to speak for the seals,” says Vedder, “because they can’t speak for themselves.”
For information write to: Zeehondencreche, Pieterburen, The Netherlands
“Green Plan” is shorthand for a comprehensive, legally mandated program of environmental protection and restoration — i.e., what the US still doesn’t have one of.
Whole Earth has been peering at other countries’ sustainability plans for some time. The Whole Earth Ecolog (1990) reviewed the influential UN report suggesting that environmental protection and economic growth were mutually dependent. In 1991 (WER 72:52), Huey Johnson reported on Canada’s plan. In ’92 (WER 75:60) Richard Nilsen covered a Green Plans conference — convened in Marin County, CA (but funded by the Netherlands and Norway) and internationally attended (but the US was represented by a single EPA official). Here’s our latest installment in the story. As other countries’ Green Plans fulfill their promise, our government will inevitably notice that serious national measures to mend the environment can be taken without damage to the economy. Stay tuned!
Alan Atkisson (2061527-2848; Atkisson@aol.com) is president of a consulting firm that assists businesses and public-sector organizations in making the transition to sustainable development. He is cofounder of the Sustainable Seattle civic forum, and former executive editor of In Context.
Alex Steffen [email@example.com is a Seattle-based writer and codirector of Terra Incognita, a group of young Northwesterners working to increase public attention to emerging regional issues. He is working on a novel.