The Netherlands and Sustainability: Leader or Laggard?

Vivian Hendrikse
A country with more than a thousand windmills. A very eco-friendly way of transportation deeply embedded in its culture: travelling by bike, which leads to an average of 1.3 bikes per inhabitant. Three million solar panels on roofs of buildings and houses and increasing usage and developments of solar bike paths. Next to that, ample recycling initiatives and a strong reputation in the area of innovation [1,4]. However, a very low ranking as 26th compared to fellow EU member states when it comes to the share of renewable energy in the country’s energy mix. What is more, a 50% higher average of CO2 emissions per capita than the average of EU countries. Exotic fruits in supermarkets in every season and worldwide the 10th biggest importer, which, considering the country’s size of roughly 40 thousand square kilometers, is extremely high [3,4]. The Netherlands: sustainability leader or laggard?

Shortcomings of the Netherlands

The numbers and statistics of several researches agree: the Netherlands is not exactly first in class in terms of sustainable performances compared to other European countries, and even the world in general. Looking at the developments of the carbon emissions per capita over the past decades, the Netherlands has always had a higher CO2 emission per capita than the average of the entire EU [4]. Moreover, this gap does not seem to be declining any time soon, as the carbon footprint of the EU appears to lessen even more than the one of the Netherlands (see graph below). Of course, the high population density of the country makes it hard to plant renewable energy sources, and the lack of variety of the available countryside diminishes the options of renewable resources for the Netherlands to choose from. There are for example no hills and mountains, which means that hydropower and other options of renewable energy sources cannot be considered [4].
CO2 emissions per capita (source: CleanTechnica [4])
Why does the Netherlands, with its reputation of being “green”, have this relatively high CO2 emission level? The reason for this is driven by three factors. First, as already mentioned, the country has an extremely large population density which leads to a high percentage of the population living in urban areas (a total of 90%) [3]. Urbanization of a country threatens its sustainable development due to rising demand for food production and services based on any sort of energy [5]. Second, the Netherlands hosts Europe’s largest port (Rotterdam) and third largest airport (Schiphol Airport of Amsterdam) – both with large carbon footprints on its own, and an even larger impact on the environment when taking the industry that is built around it into account [3]. This brings me to the third factor, the Dutch industry: as previously stated, the Netherlands is listed 10th as the world’s largest importer. However, when it comes to exports, the Dutch are ranked even higher with, a for its size rather impressive, 8th ranking worldwide [3]. All in all, the country – as small as it is – clearly contributes heavily to usage of fossil fuels and thereby negatively impacts the environment.

Fields in which the Netherlands leads

Thankfully, the Netherlands is aware of its shortcomings. Acknowledging its high usage of energy and its large carbon footprint, the government has committed to improving the countries environmental and climate protection performances whilst working towards the Sustainable Developments goals [2]. The first results are visible: this year, the Netherlands has dropped out of the EU’s “group for greenhouse gas intensity concerns” – a very positive development [2]. Small adjustments are also made. Last year, for example, a new law was implemented that states that plastic bags are no longer allowed to be handed out for free in shops [3]. However, several adaptations take more time. If the Netherlands were to immediately decrease its international trade quantity and businesses operations to diminish its environmental impact, the country would lose its economic welfare. In order to have proceeds to invest in innovations and renewable energy, the Netherlands has to maintain its international position and foster its economic growth. This paradox forces the country to consider other, longer-term options, to slowly transform its industry into a more environmentally sustainable one. Therefore, the Dutch government invests heavily in innovative initiatives from citizens and entrepreneurs, as well as technical innovation studies at universities [4].
A typical view in Amsterdam: a large number of bikes next to the canals.
Though the results of these transformations are not yet noticeable, many transformations are being made. Schiphol airport, for example, has partnered with energy company Eneco to convert the airport to 100% wind energy by the end of this year [1]. The port of Rotterdam is in the process of building a waste-to-chemistry plant that will transform up to 360,000 tons of waste into 220,000 tons of green methanol. The facility is the first of its kind in Europe, and will eliminate over 300,000 tons of CO2 emissions [1]. The public transportation sector also contributes to these innovations: it has committed to “providing 100% emissions-free busses by 2025 and removing all gas and diesel vehicles from the road by 2030, positioning the country as a leader in sustainable regional and urban ground transport” [1]. Even in the biking sector, which seemed eco-friendly to start with, positive developments are made. The startup “SwapFiets” offers recycled, good-as-new bikes including a 24/7 reparation services for an attractive monthly fee, incentivizing people to join this circular economy initiative instead of simply buying a new bike once their old bike no longer works or is lost. Lastly, in the solar sector, the Netherlands installed 853 megawatts of solar in 2017, which was an increase of 60% in one year. That year, more than half a million homes ran on solar power – 40% more than in the previous year [1].

Leader or laggard?

When looking at the facts, it is obvious that the Netherlands has yet to lower its carbon footprint significantly and many improvements have to be made. However, this does not mean that the country is lagging in terms of sustainability. Quite the contrary: when it comes to sustainable developments and innovation, the Netherlands is a clear leader.


[1] Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (20 April 2018), “How the Dutch lead in Sustainability”, Invest in Holland. Available Online (link) [Last Accessed: 19.09.2018]
[2] CBS (9 March 2018), “Netherlands closer to achieving Sustainability Goals”, Central Bureau for Statistics. Available Online (link) [Last Accessed: 20.09.2018]
[3] Marianne Chagnon (18 December 2016), “The Netherlands and Sustainability: Suprisingly not that good”, Dutchreview. Available Online (link) [Last Accessed: 19.09.2018]
[4] Rogier van Rooij (12 July 2017), “Netherlands One Of Least Sustainable EU Countries. How Did The Dutch Get Their Green Image?”, CleanTechnica. Available Online (link) [Last Accessed: 20.09.2018]
[5] Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2 July 2013), “Rapid urbanization threatens sustainable development”, United Nations. Available Online (link) [Last Accessed: 18.09.2018]

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