As the Trump administration continues to roll back climate policy in the U.S., including changes to clean car rules that will allow cars to emit nearly a billion tons more carbon dioxide than they otherwise would have, the Netherlands is moving in the other direction, rolling out a set of new policies that will drastically cut emissions this year and put the country well on the path to its goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050.
But the Dutch government isn’t acting voluntarily: The new policies are the result of a seven-year-long lawsuit from an environmental nonprofit called Urgenda, the first case to establish that a national government has a legal duty to protect its citizens from dangerous climate change. The first ruling against the government came in 2015, and the government appealed, then appealed again when it lost in a district court. Finally, in 2019, it lost in the Supreme Court in the Hague—and the government realized that it would have to scramble to meet the original ruling, saying that it had to cut emissions by at least 25% in 2020 compared to the emission level three decades ago.
The country is now investing around $2 billion in renewable energy, reducing speed limits, investing millions to save energy in homes, improving recycling and forest management, adding solar panels to schools, and paying farmers to reduce livestock or move out of the meat business entirely. (The Netherlands is a major exporter of pork and dairy products, both of which are significant sources of emissions as pigs and cattle are raised.) The country’s sprawling greenhouses will be retrofitted with more LED lights. Roads will be paved with more sustainable concrete. Other laws will change to encourage the installation of renewable energy. Coal plants will ramp down production by 75% and may close earlier than scheduled. As the country recovers from the COVID-19 crisis, the work will also help stimulate the economy.
Urgenda, the group that sued the government, worked with hundreds of other organizations to present the government with 54 actions that could reach the necessary climate goals; so far, the government has adopted 30, which it expects will cut emissions by 11-12 megatons this year. “I have spent a lot of time over the last few months with five different ministries to help them out with the different measures, and also brought in a lot of partners that were willing to help out,” says Marjan Minnesma, the head of Urgenda Foundation. “We really presented this as a joint initiative and not as a fight.”
The organization typically focuses on solutions in its own work, such as making homes energy neutral or promoting electric cars, but it turned to the legal system when it saw that it seemed necessary. The government had made an earlier commitment to cut emissions but then backtracked. “We never would have moved so quickly without the law,” she says. “That’s quite simple. We have really accelerated action in the Netherlands. I think it’s an important tool now, next to young people that go in the streets to have strikes every Friday, and other solutions.” She says that the government still has work to do—it’s likely to meet its climate goals this year only because of the unexpected interruption of the coronavirus, and it will have to go farther to stay on track as the economy recovers. Also, the original goal, to cut emissions 25% by 2020, was based on a goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius; scientists now believe it’s necessary to go much farther and limit it to 1.5 degrees. Urgenda says that the country will need to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030 to be on track. But the progress happening now is significant.
Groups in other countries are pursuing similar cases, from Belgium, where a ruling is expected this fall, to Colombia, where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of young people who sued to force the country to uphold its targets to stop deforestation in the Amazon rain forest. Success varies by location—Minnesma says that Dutch judges are apolitical, and the system is set up so that even if Urgenda had lost, it wouldn’t have been responsible for paying the government’s large legal fees. But she says that it’s a tool that’s likely to be used more. The group has translated all of its work into English to share it with others. “We help anyone who wants to make a case, and spread the knowledge that we’ve gained after almost eight years,” she says.