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Environmental Lessons From the Netherlands Elections

Environmental Lessons From the Netherlands Elections

Sunday, 28 March, 2021 - 11:15
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Electoral platforms of political parties typically cover topics such as the economy, employment, social benefits, taxes, education, scientific research, and foreign policy. However, the environment, climate change and sustainable development have recently become a staple of electoral platforms around the world, as was apparent in the recent Dutch legislative elections which took place last week. It is noteworthy that coronavirus concerns did not prevent highlighting other challenges, but rather constituted an incentive to demand that funds allocated for recovery, which exceeded $50 trillion, integrate environmental and climate goals.

Thirty seven parties competed for the 150 parliament seats, based on a proportional representation system. 17 parties managed to score enough national votes to win between from 1 seat for the smallest to 33 seats for the largest. While the competing parties were divided between the far right and the far left, the environment was part of all platforms, albeit at varying levels. The leftist green party (GroenLinks) called for an immediate and radical reduction in carbon emissions, to be achieved by tightening restrictions on industry, transportation and electricity generation sectors. It argued that the potential economic slowdown in the short term is much less than the disastrous effects of climate change if no bold action is taken. The far-right Forum for Democracy put economic growth at the forefront of its interests, calling for a slow, gradual reduction in emissions in a manner that does not affect the country's competitiveness. The party doubted the authenticity of the circulated scientific figures and projections about climate change, claiming that they are inflated and do not warrant urgent action. It was also the only party that, in its program, opposed the restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, demanding that activities be opened in all sectors without conditions. This is similar to the stance of populist politicians in other countries, who simultaneously downplay the urgency of climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, in order to attract voters who consider non-compliance with restrictions a form of exercising personal freedom.

The biggest victory in the Dutch elections was achieved by D66 (liberal democrats), which placed climate change and the environment on top of its program, and made the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda, locally and globally, its prime goal, under the slogan Leaving No One Behind. The party presented an economic recovery plan that focused on bold innovation, so that the economy grows by providing better quality value-added products, services and jobs, rather than simply increasing quantities. The party's program, which was based on the principles of sustainable development, attracted enough votes to make it the second party in the country for the first time. VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy) was able to maintain the first place by adhering to a centrist program that accords economic, social and environmental considerations equal importance, while adhering to its roots as protector of the business sector.

Consultations to form a coalition government of four parties have already begun, because none of the winning parties got an absolute majority to govern alone. Agreement on the government program may take several weeks, as this requires concessions and compromises from each of the coalition parties, in order to arrive at a unified plan, with timetable for implementation.

What are the differences on the issues of environment and climate? While some call for reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2030, others find this an unrealistic goal, saying that the goal set by the 2015 Paris Climate Summit is enough, which is to reach “zero emissions” in 2050, while trying to work with other European countries to bring the date closer to 2045. Some parties request to keep the nuclear option open, as an alternative to producing electricity without carbon emissions, considering this a necessary element to curb climate change, whereas others refuse any use of nuclear energy, now and in the future, due to its operating risks and the contamination dangers posed by radioactive waste. They consider that renewable energy, rationalization of consumption and boosting efficiency are sufficient to secure the demand for energy and reduce emissions to zero, especially with the introduction of hydrogen as a carrier and storage medium of renewable energy.

As a dual response to environmental and health challenges, some parties called in their programs to increase taxes on meat, sweet snacks and beverages with excessive sugar, concurrently with reducing taxes on vegetables, fruits and healthy food in general. Other parties called for halving the number of farm animals. The environmental motive is that raising animals for meat and dairy production causes large carbon emissions and consumes huge quantities of water. Moreover, excessive consumption of meat causes serious health problems, mainly cardiovascular and heart diseases, while high sugar levels in the blood lead to health failures, mainly diabetes. Equally important is that excessive intake of fatty meats and sugar is a main cause of obesity. But political parties with farmers’ support base object to a wide reduction in cattle breeding and meat production. It is noteworthy that the parties skeptical of climate change and coronavirus are the same ones that oppose measures limiting the consumption of meat and sugar. They largely are those parties that opposed increasing taxes on tobacco products in the past, based on the principle of preserving personal freedom. However, such fringe groups would not be part of the Dutch coalition.

All parties agree that single-use plastic products should be restricted or completely banned. It is expected that an agreement will be reached to ban the production of plastic bags from new raw materials, depending only on recycled plastic, in order to reduce the burden of waste. While everyone agrees on the need to expand green spaces and forests, they differ on the details. The pro-environment and nature parties are calling for a 10 percent increase in forest areas, and the allocation of 48 square meters of green space for each person, as stipulated by the United Nations. Others fear that this will limit the chances of building additional housing units in cities, which need hundreds of thousands of them. The democratic party, D66, proposes a compromise, based on a smaller increase in green spaces, in parallel with improving their quality and linking them together.

Electoral platforms of competing Dutch parties spoke in detail about industry, trade, agriculture, energy, water, education, health, transportation, social benefits, and taxes. Still, the environment, sustainable development and climate change have been strongly present as influencing factors in all of these issues.

It is hoped that soon the day will come when the environment, sustainable development, and climate change are seriously included as an integral portion of party programs, as well as government policies, in Arab countries.

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