Amsterdam has ambitious aspirations to slash its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), phase out fossil fuels, and usher in a clean energy future.
The city’s sustainability vision is panoramic in scope, encompassing the management of public space as well as how energy, water, and material resources can be used more efficiently.
City leaders are convinced that the same steps that Amsterdam must take to reduce and ultimately eliminate fossil fuels will also improve air quality, reduce traffic, make buildings more comfortable, and render the workforce more productive, all while saving citizens money.
As its leaders are drawn toward a vision of Amsterdam as a clean, prosperous, and sustainable city, they are also motivated by a desire to avoid the problems that fossil fuel dependency entail. These include air and water pollution, price volatility, and limited fuel reserves, hence the looming threat of eventual fuel shortages and price increases.
The Netherlands has been drawing down its once-abundant natural gas supplies for some time. It is projected that the country will have to start importing natural gas by 2025, as will much of the European Union.
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. Groningen residents have demanded a halt to gas production. If that happens, the Netherlands would become more dependent on Russian natural gas, a dependency which is politically unpopular.
In Amsterdam: A Different Energy. 2040 Energy Strategy,1 the city outlines its strategy for becoming sustainable by 2040, and for cutting GHG emissions 75 percent from 1990 levels. If Amsterdam succeeds, its emissions goal would surpass the European Union’s 60 percent emissions-reduction goal for 2040.
Municipal officials see the city’s 2040 GHG target as an important milestone that must be attained if the city is to reach its even more exacting goal of an 80 to 90 percent reduction in GHG by 2050. Achieving that, however, will be a lengthy process requiring broad cooperation, patience, and perseverance.
That’s one reason city officials have made it a practice for almost a decade 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.
So how did Amsterdam formulate its ambitious climate and energy planning programs, stealing a march on many other cities?
Origins of the City’s Sustainability Strategy
Amsterdam has had a municipal climate agency since 2006, long before most other cities. With that, the city also embarked on its first intensive studies of climate and energy. Those studies culminated in Amsterdam: A Different Energy. 2040 Energy Strategy, published in 2010.
Over the next four years, the city council and vice mayors led the city in creating and implementing a clean energy strategy that included goals for energy efficiency, as well as for solar and wind power.
During a wide-ranging interview in Amsterdam, Peter Paul Ekker, spokesman for Amsterdam Alderman Abdeluheb Choho, Vice Mayor for Sustainability, discussed the city’s ambitious sustainability goals and why Amsterdam is so receptive to innovative climate-protection programs.
A Culture of Openness
Ekker believes Amsterdam has high sustainability aspirations in part because, “there’s a lot of creativity and entrepreneurship” in Amsterdam, and also because the city has universities, a high-tech community, and “people with bright ideas.”
“If you come with a new idea” in Amsterdam, Ekker explains, “everybody is open to it. This is also why the city council has quite unanimously supported working on climate change and climate mitigation.”
Since 2014, the city has begun to hit its stride, scaling up programs and, according to Ekker, focusing on getting results across the board while developing and refining policy instruments. To an observer, the city also appears to be blessed with competent, dedicated leadership.
Securing Popular Support
A big reason why climate mitigation has strong public support in Amsterdam, Ekker explains, is that the municipality rallies support for climate mitigation not by trying to debate the impacts of climate change or scare the public, but by calling its climate policies “sustainability measures” and underscoring their economic and public health benefits. “Our analysis is that the public in general doesn’t need convincing on the need for mitigation measures,” he says. “But it does need examples and solutions on how to become a sustainable economy.”
The city therefore talks about what is technologically possible and cost-effective along with the co-benefits of sound climate policies, including cleaner air, fewer respiratory problems, and a more livable environment.
Thus, for example, the city’s policies on electric vehicles (EVs) are not specifically climate change-driven, Ekker notes. Support for those policies is borne of concern about public health. Of course, the net results benefit the climate, too.
Moving away from fossil fuels also has real economic benefits, and “we are not afraid to celebrate that,” Ekker says. These benefits include attracting large companies, like Tesla, to Amsterdam. The electric auto maker now has its European headquarters in the city, and Ekker attributes this in part to the fact that, “we are frontrunners in electric cars and electric transport.”
Carrots and Sticks for Sustainable Mobility
Amsterdam is also discouraging the use of inefficient fossil fuel vehicles by establishing restricted environmental zones in which older, less efficient vehicles are banned. “Dirty trucks, dirty cars, [and] motorcycles in the future, will not be allowed to enter the city anymore,” Ekker asserts.
Apart from imposing progressively tighter regulations on polluting vehicles, the city also provides incentives to encourage the switch to EVs.
“Public transport is going to be totally electric by 2025,” according to Ekker. Some businesses have already opted to have their delivery trucks drive to the edge of the city using fossil fuels and then transfer to an EV, as it’s cheaper to enter the city in an EV. This, Ekker believes, could be a model for other cities.
The city is also currently changing from diesel to electric buses, and has 40 electric buses on order for delivery within three years. Ultimately, all of Amsterdam’s public transport will be emission-free.
By 2025, all the city’s taxis will also have to be electric. The city’s taxi fleet will have gradually worn out by then, and will be replaced by electric taxis. “Technology is coming to our aid,” Ekker observes. “In two or three years, you’re going to have a fine Tesla for US$35,000 [that will be] comparable to any taxicab that you buy now.” EVs, however, will be cheaper to maintain and operate than fuel-burning cars.
Amsterdam also has a subsidy program for EVs, providing €5,000-6,000 to a business buying an electric van, and up to €40,000 to a business buying a large, heavy electric truck.
In addition, EV owners in Amsterdam receive tax credits and avoid the increasingly onerous regulations being applied to fossil fuel vehicles in the city. In fact, those with the dirtiest vehicles are not granted city parking permits at all.
Finally, fuel costs in the Netherlands and Europe are far higher than in the U.S., which makes EVs even more attractive economically. Gasoline in the Netherlands now costs US$1.80 per liter, or US$6.80 per gallon.
Moreover, as part of a city noise abatement policy, commercial vehicles are not allowed to come into the city center on Sundays, unless they are electric, as EVs make less noise than fossil fuel vehicles.
So, while climate change may be a significant factor, what truly motivates people to make the switch to EVs in Amsterdam and the Netherlands? “Even if you don’t believe in climate change,” Ekker notes wryly, “you still can believe in a great Tesla car.”
The city plans to increase the number of households with rooftop solar generators from 5,000 to 80,000 by 2020, while it expands the city’s wind power generating capacity from 67 MW to 85 MW. The challenge Amsterdam faces in this regard is that whereas many residents are interested in solar, relatively few have suitable roofs to support rooftop generators.
The city has therefore been working with the owners of large factories and commercial buildings to arrange for them to lease their roofs to residents for solar energy generation. The city has even arranged for the siting of residential solar collectors on the roof of a metro station.
The people of Amsterdam are also solicitous of their next generation. “All schools will have green roofs, solar panels, [and] good insulation,” according to Ekker. Green roofs insulate buildings, reducing heating and cooling needs. They thereby improve air quality along with occupants’ comfort. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Simultaneously, the city plans on becoming more flood-proof with the help of green roofs and better storm water management.
The Circular Economy
Amsterdam became a strong proponent of the “circular economy” once the city realized that it could replace a third of the building materials it used every year by recovering and reusing old building materials. “But to do that,” Ekker says, “you need to build smart,” by which he means constructing buildings so that they can be more easily recovered once the building has reached the end of its useful lifespan.
In addition, all concrete that the city uses in the future is going to be recycled. That will be “a huge CO2 reduction,” Ekker says. In contracting with developers for buildings in Amsterdam, 30 percent of a prospective project’s rating is based on its sustainability score. High-risk projects get loans from the city’s new €50 million sustainability fund.
Amsterdam is already reusing municipal waste to co-generate heat and power for residents in the northern and western quadrants of the city. The waste is collected and delivered to a central incinerator with advanced pollution controls. Heat from the plant is distributed to households in large insulated pipes, replacing individual gas furnaces.
Excess heat from a gas-fired power plant on the east side of Amsterdam in Diemen serves residents in the city’s southern and eastern quadrants. Meanwhile, the city plans to create a region-wide heat network, extending from its Tata Steel smelter on the North Sea shore in Ijmuiden, 25 km west of Amsterdam to the city of Almere, 25 km east of Amsterdam.
In total, Amsterdam plans to have 102,000 homes on district heating by 2020 and 240,000 by 2040. Geothermal heat sources and surplus heat from urban greenhouses where flowers and vegetables are grown will provide heat throughout the region.
The city also strongly supports recycling and has ambitious city-wide recycling goals. Amsterdam seeks to more than double its 2015 recycling rate by separating 65 percent of urban waste by 2020 into resource flows of glass, paper, plastics, and even textiles.
City leaders believe that accomplishing its climate, energy, and recycling goals will make Amsterdam a more prosperous, cleaner, quieter, safer, more pleasant, and more affordable place to live. These improvements will also help make Amsterdam a more socially diverse, inclusive, and sustainable city.
Amsterdam has built a public consensus favoring its ambitious energy and climate program by emphasizing its health and economic benefits. Rather than focusing on the problem of climate change and emphasizing the severity of climate impacts, city leaders focus on the opportunities that ambitious solutions offer, particularly the money that could be saved or earned.
As Ekker says, “Solutions are where we can make an impact.”
Editorial assistance by Joanna Jiang.
- Amsterdam: a different energy. 2040 Energy Strategy. City of Amsterdam [online] (February 2010). https://www.amsterdam.nl/bestuur-organisatie/organisatie/ruimte-economie/ruimte-duurzaamheid/making-amsterdam/publications/sustainability-0/2040_energy_strategy_0/.