By John J. Berger, PhD, an energy and environmental policy specialist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, who is currently working on a new book on resolving the climate crisis.
Finding ways to reduce cities’ greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) is vital to global efforts to mitigate climate change. Cities account for around 70 percent of global GHGs and a large growing fraction of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050.
The process of shrinking cities’ carbon footprints may at first seem pretty straightforward: Conduct studies to assess the sources and quantities of emissions along with options for reducing them. Then set targets, create policies, apply and step back as emissions fall. But Amsterdam’s experience as a frontrunner in the global race to reduce urban GHGs reveals just how much more complex these multifaceted challenges can be.
An ambitious green agenda
The city’s plan to cut its GHG emissions by 75 percent by 2040, compared with 1990 levels, and eventually phase out fossil fuels, is ambitious. If it succeeds, Amsterdam’s emissions would be 15 percent below the European Union’s 60 percent emissions reduction goal for 2040.
Municipal officials see the city’s 2040 GHG target as a milestone that must be attained if the city is to reach its even more ambitious 2050 goal of reducing GHGs by 80 to 90 percent. City leaders have long recognized that achieving the 2050 goal will be a lengthy process requiring broad multisector cooperation, as well as patience and perseverance.
Reaching for sustainability: a panoramic vision
Amsterdam’s sustainability vision integrates economic and social aims with environmental and climate goals. Thus, as Amsterdam plans to phase out fossil fuels and usher in a clean-energy future, the city anticipates that the transition will bring a broad range of co-benefits, rather than unrequited costs.
The same steps that Amsterdam must take to reduce and ultimately eliminate fossil fuels will improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion, make buildings more comfortable, render the workforce more productive, and save residents money.
The city’s sustainability vision is panoramic in scope, seeking to improve the management of public space as well as making energy, water, and material resource use more efficient.
Using an integrated systems approach, the city works collaboratively with Amsterdam’s industries, supply-chain managers, real estate developers and bus and taxi companies. It has also established a revolving Sustainability Fund of almost €50 million in addition to an existing €40 million in the city’s Climate and Energy Fund. Organizations needing low-interest loans for sustainable energy projects, or for waste reuse-and-recovery efforts, can apply to the new fund.
The city’s energy and environmental agenda, Sustainable Amsterdam, aims to increase per-person renewable energy production by 20 percent and to reduce overall per-person energy use by 20 percent from 2013 to 2020.
A fossil-free energy future
The city is planning an 18-MW increase in its installed wind power capacity by 2020 – up 27 percent over current levels. By then, the city plans to improve its air quality by reducing soot emissions by 30 percent and nitrogen dioxide concentrations by 35 percent.
If successful, the city’s energy efficiency and renewable energy measures collectively will reduce both the cost and quantity of energy used per person as well as per person carbon dioxide emissions.
Amsterdam’s leaders are drawn toward a vision of Amsterdam as a clean, prosperous, and sustainable city, while simultaneously avoiding the air and water pollution and price volatility that fossil fuel dependency entails.
Renewable energy, by contrast, is virtually nonpolluting, and inherently more predictable in price. In addition, renewable power prices have been dropping steeply for several decades and, in many places, are at parity or cheaper than new fossil fuel power.
The Netherlands has been drawing down its once-abundant natural gas supplies for some time and will have to start importing natural gas by 2025, as will much of the European Union. Amsterdam’s leaders foresee that their sustainability plans will thus provide a bulwark against an eventual era of fossil fuel scarcity and higher prices.
Amsterdam’s leaders also expect that investments in modern, efficient, and clean energy systems will ultimately pay for themselves. They see renewable energy as a “win–win” that will render the city more pleasant and healthier in the near-term, while insuring that future energy supplies stay affordable and reliable in the long-term.
Today Amsterdam’s solid waste is burned in an incinerator with tight pollution controls to produce heat and power for the city. The electricity goes into the grid, and the heat is distributed to residential and industrial customers. Although the heating plant burns municipal waste, the city is nonetheless seeking to increase the separated percentage of its solid waste from 19 percent in 2013 to 65 percent in 2020.
Between 2013 and 2020, the city intends to increase the number of homes connected to district heating from 62,000 to 102,000 and to provide an €8 million subsidy to one of the city’s public housing corporations to retrofit 1,000 apartments to a zero-net-energy standard. The city hopes that this program will encourage other building owners to follow suit.
Planners recognize that, in general, modern, energy-efficient buildings are more pleasant for occupants and command higher prices than older, inefficient units. All else being equal, property values will be higher in a clean, well-managed city of energy-efficient buildings with good public transport, compared to a city where public infrastructure has been allowed to decay and fossil fuel industries’ dominance remains unchallenged.
Amsterdam’s leaders recognize that clean air is essential if the city is to be habitable, sustainable, and attractive to residents and businesses in the future. They are therefore stimulating electric vehicle (EV) demand to reduce air pollution and are increasing the number of public EV charging stations from 1,000 in 2013 to 4,000 by 2018, so EVs will have plenty of charging options. There are also fast chargers for taxis.
Vehicle owners in Amsterdam who buy an electric car today get a public charging outlet in front of their house, and the city plans to give EV drivers more privileges, such as allowing them to deliver goods to stores during hours when deliveries are otherwise restricted.
Whereas the city’s taxi and bus companies originally were strongly opposed to the city’s climate and energy program, the city has successfully enlisted their cooperation. For example, it reached an agreement with its municipal bus company in 2015 to have all-electric bus transport by 2025. Additionally, the hundreds of mostly diesel boats now used for tours through the city’s historic canals must be electric by 2025 and the city is studying how its municipal ferries can be made cleaner.
The city also signed an agreement with taxi operators: All taxis within the city will have to be electric by 2025 and, in the interim, electric taxis are getting preferential treatment at certain city taxi stands, so they have to wait less for their fares, making the switch to electricity more profitable.
Challenges and looking forward
While the city is making good progress on its agenda, some targets are behind schedule. The city government had planned to be energy-neutral by 2015. However, not enough money was initially allocated to retrofit the hundreds of city-owned buildings or to replace 110,000 existing streetlights with dimmable LED lights. Thus the goal was postponed in 2013.
The city had also planned to increase its solar generating capacity to 25 MW by 2016, but is currently only at 16 MW, which nonetheless is a 78 percent increase over 2013 generation.
However, city leaders are committed to accomplishing Amsterdam’s climate and sustainability goals.
Amsterdam is one of the world’s most politically progressive, socially cohesive and technologically advanced cities. So the challenges it has encountered in moving toward sustainability should serve as a cautionary tale. Less well-governed, more fractious and rapidly industrializing cities with steeply rising GHG emissions face far greater obstacles on their paths toward eventual sustainability. But as Amsterdam’s experience reveals, the rewards for cities that succeed are well worth the effort, and the planet is the better for it.
This article originally appeared in Solutions Journal and was adapted with the author’s permission.
John J. Berger, PhD, is an energy and environmental policy specialist who has produced ten books on climate, energy, and natural resource topics. He is the author of the award-winning Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to the Climate Crisis, and Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, and is at work on a new book about climate solutions.
The contents of this article reflect the personal opinions and interpretations of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.