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 plans to reduce its emissions are ambitious. In Amsterdam: A Different Energy: 2040 Energy Strategy (2010),1 the city announced a goal of cutting its GHG emissions by 75 percent by 2040, compared with 1990 levels, and eventually phasing out fossil fuels. If it succeeds in attaining its emissions reduction target, 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 its 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.

Amsterdam officials have therefore made it a practice for almost a decade now to reach out to the business sector, government, and civil society groups to build a broad social consensus in favor of the city’s new energy and climate strategy.

Reaching for Sustainability

The city works collaboratively with Amsterdam’s industries, supply-chain managers, real estate developers, and its 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,2 calls for increasing per-person renewable energy production by 20 percent from 2013 to 2020. In part this will be done by increasing the city’s installed solar energy capacity from 9 MW to 160 MW. At the same time, the plan is to reduce overall per-person energy use by 20 percent.

A Fossil-free Energy Future

The city is also 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.

Electric cars fill Dam Square during car2Go’s Amsterdam launch in 2011.

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 wanting to avoid the problems that fossil fuel dependency entails.

These include air and water pollution, price volatility, and limited fuel reserves; hence the looming threat of eventual fuel shortages and price increases. Renewable energy, by contrast, is ever-present, virtually nonpolluting during operation, 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 EU. Amsterdam’s leaders foresee that their sustainability plans will thus provide a bulwark against an eventual era of fossil fuel scarcity and higher prices.

Two additional factors are increasing Dutch political support for renewable energy. In Groningen province, where most of the Netherlands’ natural gas is extracted, gas wells are being blamed for severe earthquakes over the past four years. Historic monuments, including 800-year-old churches, have been damaged, and Groningen residents have demanded a halt to gas production. If that happens, the Netherlands would become more reliant on Russian natural gas, a dependency that is politically unpopular.

By reducing the need for fossil fuels, Amsterdam’s leaders also expect that investments in modern, efficient, and clean energy systems will ultimately pay for themselves in energy cost savings for citizens and corporations. They see this as a “win–win” that will render the city more pleasant and healthier in the near-term, while insuring that, in the long-term, future energy supplies stay affordable and predictable in price.

A Panoramic Vision

What’s especially interesting about Amsterdam’s sustainability vision is the way it integrates economic and social aims with environmental and climate goals. Thus, as Amsterdam plans to phase out fossil fuels to 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 Amsterdam’s air quality, reduce its traffic congestion, make its buildings more comfortable, render its workforce more productive, and save its citizens 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.

As part of this integrated systems approach, the city plans to make greater efforts at recycling urban waste and construction debris.

The city’s 2020 recycling goal is to more than double today’s recycling rate by separating 65 percent of urban waste and transforming it into resource flows of glass, paper, plastics, and even textiles.


Less than half of Amsterdam’s citizens report a passenger vehicle as their primary mode of transportation.

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.

Over the seven years from 2013 to 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. Thus Amsterdam is striving to improve its public transport.

Electric Transport

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 those EVs will have plenty of charging options. (The city currently has 1,900 regular public charging stations and roughly an equal number of private charging points.) 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 and is studying how its municipal ferries can be made cleaner.

In addition, the hundreds of mostly diesel boats now used for tours through the city’s historic canals have to be electric by 2025.

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.

As part of a deal with delivery companies, Amsterdam will also increase the number of freight transfer hubs on the outskirts of the city. There, gasoline- and diesel-powered commercial vehicles are encouraged to transfer cargo to low- or zero-emission vehicles and to combine loads to reduce the number of delivery trucks in the city.

Challenges Remain

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, but has not yet succeeded.

Deloitte Ltd.’s Amsterdam headquartersreceived the Building Research Establishment’s highest sustainability rating ever for an office building.

After the goal was established in 2007, not enough money was initially allocated to retrofit the hundreds of city-owned buildings or replace 110,000 existing streetlights with dimmable LED lights. Thus the goal was postponed in 2013.

Progress toward the goal has increased since last year, however, and the municipality is now on track to reduce its emissions by 45 percent in 2025 from 2012 levels.

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. And whereas the city was going to drive 2016 per capita energy consumption down by 15 percent, it has only managed to reduce it by six percent relative to 2013.

Accentuating the Positive

City leaders are convinced that accomplishing Amsterdam’s climate and sustainability goals will make the city a more prosperous, cleaner, quieter, safer, more pleasant, and more affordable place to live. These improvements will also help make it a more socially diverse, inclusive, and sustainable city.

Peter Paul Ekker is a spokesman for Amsterdam Alderman Abdeluheb Choho, who is also the city’s vice mayor for sustainability. Ekker declared that in Amsterdam, there is unanimous support for greening the city and making it more sustainable, “especially since we now also see that it brings new jobs, new wealth, [and] new business opportunities.”

The Amsterdam perspective on the economic and lifestyle benefits of a clean-energy transition is in sharp contrast to the view promulgated by some U.S. politicians who seek to juxtapose environmental protection against economic growth by attempting to link clean energy with higher energy prices, privation, and economic distress.

In Amsterdam: A Different Energy: 2040 Energy Strategy,1 the city’s aspirational climate and energy strategy study, city leaders declare to the contrary that “being a leader in transitions that affect the basic facilities and infrastructure of the city, such as energy and communication, creates extra jobs, economic growth, and an open playing field for innovation, thereby helping to move the city into the future.”

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.


Thank you to Joanna Jiang for her editorial assistance.


  1. City of Amsterdam. Amsterdam: a different energy. 2040 Energy Strategy [online] (2010).
  2. City of Amsterdam. Sustainable Amsterdam [online] (2015).

John J. Berger

John J. Berger, Ph.D., is an energy and environmental policy specialist and Senior Researcher at the Pacific Institute of Oakland, California. He has been a university professor, and consultant to businesses,...

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