The Dutch Climate Plan - Big Leap or Pie in the Sky?

The new Dutch government has announced its climate plan. By 2030 the Netherlands wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 49 per cent compared to 1990 levels. Amongst the measures to achieve this is the shut down of all coal fired power plants in the Netherlands and the industrial-scale introduction of CCS in the country. But is this realistic and can it really work out?

The new Dutch government presented its government agreement (`Regeerakkord`) last week. It includes a chapter on  `The Netherlands becoming more sustainable`(p. 37-46). It has been noticed around the world for two measures in specific: the large scale introduction of CCS and the phasing out of coal fired power plants by 2030. This post is looking into both measures.


CCS
The single biggest measure to bring down CO2 emissions in the Netherlands is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). In terms of volume, the new Dutch government agreement expects the controversial CCS-technology to reduce CO2 emissions by 18 Million tonnes compared to 1990 levels. By comparison, the government expects the shut-down of all coal-fired power plants in the country to deliver only a 12 Million tonnes CO2-reduction, compared to 1990 levels (p. 38). CCS is a controversial technology to capture CO2 from emission sources and permanently store it underground, for instance in salt caverns or depeleted gas fields. By 2016, the Global CCS Institute, a lobbying group for CCS with a `mission to accelerate the deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) as an imperative technology in tackling climate change and providing energy security`, counted a total number of merely 38 CCS projects around the globe. According to this industry group there is only one CCS project in the Netherlands at present, the ROAD project, which is still under construction. In other words, there are currently no CCS projects in the Netherlands up and running that would operate at commercial scale. In its government agreement, the new Dutch government does not outline a trajectory on how to stem this industrial-scale phase in of CCS. It merely notes that the timeframe will be discussed with all relevant sectors. The government agreement also features a pledge to implement a climate act and the new government might concretize its plans there.


Coal Fired Power Plants
The second largest measure to reduce CO2 emissions is the phasing out of coal fired power plants by 2030. The Netherlands are currently hosting seven coal fired power plants. The latest in Eemshaven and the Maasvlakte plant in Rotterdam only became operational in 2014 and 2013, respectively. Again, the government agreement does not include any details on the way in which the power plants shall be closed. There is no timetable or particular order in which the plants shall be switched of. Moreover, experience in other countries has shown that a top-down approach to shut down power plants, without discussion and coordination with the industry can result in lengthy litigation. Vast sums of taxpayer´s-money might have to be lined up as compensation (see for comparison the recent judgement of the German Federal Constitutional Court on the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany Case BVerfG 2 BvL 6/13, discussed earlier on this blog).


Conclusion
The introduction of a climate act is innovative and the aims that are outlined in the government agreement are ambitious. The document, however, lacks  concrete information on how precisely these goals shall be achieved. Although it is the purpose of the document to outline the big lines of government over the next years and it cannot be expected to feature in-depth provisions, at least the inclusion of trajectories and an outline of the strategies with which the aims shall be achieved would have been desirable. The persistent use of the year 2030 as a benchmark, moreover, gives the government the biggest possible leeway with a view to concrete measures to be taken during the next four years (the actual period in office).

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