The Netherlands’ sustainable image: how much is true?

By Elizabeth Aardewijn April 15 2020

The Netherlands has a green image when it comes to lifestyle and innovation. We ride bikes, run our trains on wind energy, and innovate in green technology. However, the statistics on the Netherlands’ share in sustainable activity show quite the opposite. Here are four reasons why the Netherlands should not have a green image.

1. Renewable energy

When it comes to implementing new energy technology and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the Netherlands. Even though the Netherlands has ambitious goals for new implementations of sustainable energy generation, measured steps towards the goal fail to appear. With a share of 7.4% in renewable energy in 2018, the Netherlands produces the least amount of renewable energy of countries in the EU. With the technological capabilities and the economic opportunities this country has, it is questionable why the percentage is not higher by now.

European countries produce a share of 18% renewable energy on average. With 7.4%, the Netherlands produces less than half of what other countries produce. This percentage is shockingly low. The amount renewable energy produced is estimated to grow though, with 3% to 11.4% over the next year. This increase is attributed to planned off-shore wind parks and solar energy. In my opinion, the Netherlands should look at Sweden, leader in renewable energy. With 54% total share in renewable energy, this country is an example to the Dutch.

The Netherlands has been building advanced coal burning power plants over the last years. Coals is still a large share of energy production, with a little over 13% of energy production from coal. The power plant was recently build in Eemshaven to facilitate high efficiency energy generation. Knowing that we will need to close down coal burning power plants over the next decades to reduce carbon emissions, these newly build plants are doomed to become stranded assets. It is hard to believe that the Netherlands has been building new power plants in the face of our current situation. More and more, it seems that the Netherlands is working against sustainable development for economic growth, instead of fostering a new energy climate. The next chart shows the share of renewable energy for each EU member state.

Figure 1: Share of energy from renewable resources in EU 2018 (Source: Eurostat)

2. Forest area

The country is second-last only to Malta on percentage of forest area. The Netherlands was once fully covered in forest, drift-sand, and swamps before settlers started cultivating the land 4.000 BC. The amount of forest area in the Netherlands is currently only 11.18%. But Holland is not the only country that lost immense amounts of wooded land. Europe’s forests have decreased with over 50% over the last 6.000 years, mostly due to demand for agricultural land. The country does plan to increase their forest area by 25% over the next thirty years. This could be a significant contribution to reducing the country’s CO2 emissions. Below are the stats on forest area for each EU member state.

Figure 2: Land use in the EU 2020 (Source: Trouw)

3. Intensive farming

The Netherlands is a big producer of meat, and produces about 1% of total global production. Per hectare utilised agricultural area, the country has the highest density of livestock. This is not strange, considering the Netherlands is also the most densely populated country in Europe. However, most of that is exported to other countries. For example, 75% of produced pig meat is exported to countries in and outside the EU. Production could thus be a lot less intensive (and less harmful) if Holland were to produce merely for their own sake. Below are the statistics of livestock density for EU member states.

Figure 3: Livestock density and grazing livestock density in the EU 2016 (Source: Eurostat)

Take for example the pig production sector. Currently the country hosts about 12 million pigs. This produces about 18 million kilo nitrogen emissions, almost 10% of Holland’s total nitrogen emissions. The amount of pigsties has reduced significantly from 14.000 to 4.000 over the last 20 years. However, the number of pigsties is compensated with bigger farms, so called ‘mega farms’. This means that we have a more or less stable amount of pigs despite the decrease in swineries. Below the number of pigsties, pigs, and pigs per pigsty over the last 20 years are shown.

Figure 4: Amount of pigsties (green), amount of pigs (blue), and amount of pigs per pigsty (orange) (Source: CBS)

4. Import petroleum and natural gas

As if that wasn’t enough, the Netherlands also has one of the largest shares in import of petroleum and natural gas. The country follows right after Italy and Spain, with a share of 12.1% import. The country is still largely dependent on fossil fuels, so their place in the list does not come as a surprise. Let’s hope that the investment in off-shore wind parks and solar energy can offset large fossil fuel imports over the coming years. Petroleum and natural gas import stats are showed in the table below.

Figure 5: Imports of petroleum and natural gas 2018 (Source: Eurostat)

Concluding, the Netherlands is a low performing country (if not the lowest) in sustainable ventures in the EU. Away with the idea that bikes and wind-powered trains make a country green. With the Netherlands’ embarrassing repertoire of pollution generating and global-warming stimulating economic activities, it seriously needs to step up it’s green game. What we need is more climate and sustainability experts in government positions to help enforce strict policies and move the Netherlands towards a greener future.

7 thoughts on “The Netherlands’ sustainable image: how much is true?

  1. Thanks for this controversial yet very enlightening blogpost, @lisaenergyclimatesustainability! This was actually a lot of new information for me, and it was really great to see it all laid out, while comparing stats to other EU countries. I did have two points of discussion / questions, one about the forest cover and the other about intensive farming.

    As you mentioned, the Netherlands is the most densely populated country in the EU. In my mind, it then makes sense that we have less forest coverage, as more area is needed for living and for industry. With this in mind, does it still make sense to use forest area as a measure of how sustainable/green the Netherlands is? And is it even possible to recover so much land with forest area? I would love to learn a bit more about this!

    By quickly googling about the Dutch agriculture sector, I found that it contributes to 10% of the Dutch economy and employment, which is quite a substantial portion. I definitely agree that there is room for improvement within the Dutch animal agriculture and farming sector, but to connect this back to our classes on cost-benefit analyses, when is it more important to look at how much financial value a certain process provides over the environmental damage it causes? “Producing merely for our own sake” would take a huge toll on the Dutch economy, and is not necessarily immediately feasible. Do you think there is a way to find a balance between the economic value of agricultural products and the damage it causes for citizens? Also, there have been major discussions about the nitrogen emissions in the past year, and I believe there are now very strict regulations in place for pigsties about filtering nitrogen. Do you think this is enough, or should we still decrease the amount of pig livestock in the country?

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  2. Hi! This was something I also found extremely surprised when I moved here, as my impression of the Netherlands was that it is a place very focused on sustainability and energy efficiency. I think the country’s high population density and agricultural productivity, which Merel touched upon above, play a large role in this, as I mentioned above.

    Something I think that really comes into play here is the prevalence of “greenwashing”, something I began to notice a lot more when I became more involved in sustainability movements here in Amsterdam. Because the Netherlands is such a progressive, modern country, consumers are largely forward-thinking and are responsive to advertisements that indicate a company is taking a stance on modern issues. I personally notice a lot of Dutch companies (for example, Shell and KLM) using this tactic to sell themselves as sustainable corporations when in reality most of their practices are largely unsustainable. Of course, this happens in other countries as well, but I think this happens more publically in the Netherlands as the result of an equally progressive yet economically minded society. For example, look to Shell’s fund, which had a massive public campaign, to pour 300M into “natural ecosystem planning, covered by the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/26/shell-not-green-saviour-death-machine-greenwash-oil-gas.

    Shell has an annual income of 24 billion euros. Spending 300M on a campaign and hundreds of millions on advertising for that campaign within the Netherlands (remember their ‘great travel hack’ campaign? Lubach does a great piece on it in Dutch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRnWpIZoD5I) is purely strategic. This money is a drop in the bucket to them, but convinced the Dutch public that they live in a society that is moving forwards when it comes to energy production. In short, they get to keep making massive sums of money and polluting, while the public remains complacent.

    I would be curious to hear what role you think greenwashing specifically within the Netherlands plays in the contradiction between its relatively poor performance sustainability-wise and public perception of its green-ness!

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  3. Hey, thank you so much for your article, it was super interesting and a little shocking to see how poorly the Netherlands performs in terms of sustainability. I wonder, how it’s possible that the Netherlands has such a “green” image anyways. Something that came to mind, is the presence of windturbines. I do see a lot of them around and there sure is a lot of wind. As someone who lives in the Netherlands that always makes me think, oh, we’re producing all the energy from wind, all good there. I also wonder, if the Netherlands exports renewable wind energy at all…

    In your article, you mention that the Netherlands should strive to be more like Sweden, but Sweden also has a lot more opportunity for hydropower, and biomass energy, which are lacking in the Netherlands. What this tells me is that the demand side must decrease by a lot. With current consumption I think it will be close to impossible to provide the entire country with renewable energy, since solar and hydropower both have quite low potential here. We should maybe focus our attention to decreasing demand and defossilizing the energy sector equally.

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  4. I completely agree with @laniepreston ‘s point about greenwashing in the Netherlands. There are a lot of commercials that focus on the “greenness” of the company. Eneco and energiedirect.nl come to mind, but I think almost every energy company in the Netherlands is using this strategy in their commercials. However, the sad reality is that the majority of these companies don’t actually provide sustainable power. Instead, they import the sustainable energy by buying certificates to make their energy “green”. This could be one of the main reasons why the actual production of sustainable energy in the Netherlands is lacking behind.

    Another example of Shell’s attempt to improve their image is their collaboration with Staatsbosbeheer to plant one million trees in the Netherlands in the coming years. Of course the announcement of the project came with a major advertisement campaign to make sure everybody would know that Shell is spending some of their money for a good cause. I don’t know whether this is part of the 300M Shell is spending in “natural ecosystem planning” or that it is a different project, but it is a good example of Shell trying to trick people in thinking that they are not that bad with regard to sustainability.

    Regarding the blogpost itself; I was wondering how the Netherlands scores on the energy efficiency compared to the rest of Europe. Do we also lack behind there, or it is one of the few categories where we are actually scoring decently?

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  5. Thank you for your comment @malaauwen!

    It is indeed true that forest area as a measure of sustainability doesn’t make a lot of sense in the Netherlands. I decided to use it still, to indicate that this is an area that does need improvement. Interestingly, there is a lot of land that could be recovered as forest area. The governments’ focus is now on increasing forest area by 10% over the next 10 years. Here is a bit more information on the governments’ plan: https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/actueel/nieuws/2020/02/04/rijk-en-provincies-10-meer-bos-in-nederland

    Regarding livestock farming, you have a point that a large part of the Netherlands wouldn’t have an income if we cut down on meat and diary production. However, having lived and worked in the agricultural sector for a year, I have discovered that many livestock farmers are already struggling making an income. They get such low prices for their product that it can’t sustain their farm. This is an indicator for me that innovation in the agricultural sector is a needed. Switch-over from diary farming to innovative ‘pick your own’ harvest schemes farms. Or switch-over from pigsties to ‘nature farming’ where farmers manage both livestock and nature reserves, improving both animal living standards and nature management, would be ideal in my eyes.

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  6. Hi @laniepreston,

    You make a very valuable contribution by providing some insights from someone that is not from the Netherlands. I hadn’t thought too much about greenwashing myself, but indeed this is something that can be added to the list I provided.

    For me it’s interesting to read that you expected to come to a ‘green’ country when moving here. It most have been quite a shock to find out it is quite the opposite. I’ve been living in the Netherlands my entire life, and have become fed up with the production-minded mentality that is almost always valued over the sustainable approach. Because ‘we need to maintain our economic productivity as a country, whatever it may take’. A very unsustainable mindset in my opinion, at some point soil will have become so exhausted, and water will have become so polluted, that economical productivity is not even possible anymore.

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  7. We have talked during the lectures about how sometimes CO2 emissions are displaced. Such as is the case when countries export a lot of products. Do you think something similar is happening with the meat production of the netherlands. Since we export most of the meat produced here to other countries, would you think it more fair to add the CO2 emissions from this farming to the importing countries as opposed to including it in the netherlands CO2 emissions?

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