“Dutch citizens sue over climate change”. A little wade down memory canal. #climatehistory

Some Dutch citizens are suing their leaders for not taking climate change seriously (you can read about it here).

While I wish them luck, a little historical context may be of interest.  The Dutch were among the first (behind the Germans) to get their heads around climate change.  There were high hopes and bold pronouncements.  It was the Dutch, after all, who hosted the “First International Conference on Carbon Dioxide Removal” in March 1992.

The opening speech at that conference was to have been given by the Minster of Housing, Physical Planning and the Environment, but he had to go to New York for a meeting about the “Earth Summit” (which gave us the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, soon to have its 21st pointless meeting, in Paris.)

So, his words were spoken by a stand-in. But they are interesting words. He starts with what was then standard language (it had been used by Margaret Thatcher, on more than one occasion).

We are carrying out an uncontrolled experiment on global scale by increasing global CO 2 concentrations at an unprecedented pace. The emission of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels for energy production is causing one of the largest environmental risks the world is facing today.

So far so boilerplate. The Dutch had some ambitious targets –

The main features and aims of the current energy and CO 2 policy of the Netherlands have been laid down in the National Environmental Policy Plan and the updated version, the NEPplus. The larger part of the measures announced in these documents are cost-effective or contain other benefits consistent with a no-regret approach.

This policy plan is supported by all Dutch ministries concerned. Very briefly, the plan aims at a reduction of CO s emissions of 2% per year with respect to the projected economic growth.

How’s that worked out?  Not so well… The light blue lines say resolutely above the “100” baseline from 1990. And don’t even think about embedded carbon…

gdp and dutch companies

Anyhows, it turns out that the Dutch were interested in carbon carbon capture and storage from a very early date –

In 1988 the Dutch Ministry of the Environment initiated research into the possibilities of CO 2 removal and storage outside the atmosphere. The first preliminary studies performed in the late 1980’s showed that there were no fundamental technical problems. CO 2 can be removed from flue gases from conventional fossil fuel power plants as well as from coal or oil gasification plants. Especially the fuel gas from the high pressure gasification process offers opportunities for relatively cheap and effective CO 2 removal techniques….In the Netherlands we take a special interest in disposal in empty gas fields. The reason of course being the availability in the Netherlands of a potential storage capacity of about 40 times the annual total Dutch CO 2 production.

One of the hazards of reading about these conferences (and there were others) is the retrospective schadenfreude you have when you read the hopeful comments.  These guys really hoped their conference would be what has since been labelled a “Field Configuring Event.” It wasn’t, (although it DID lead on to many more CCS conferences, which keeps academics, consultants, politicians and corporate greens happy, so that’s alright then.)

Finally, I would like to express my confidence that this conference will contribute to improved scientific knowledge on the subject of CO 2 and that the urgently needed international cooperation will get a good start. Maybe we arc even at a historic meeting, indicating a major breakthrough to the solution of the pressing global problem of climate change.

What went wrong?

In the short-term, the European Union’s Carbon Tax got lobbied out of existence.  According to the Economist  (cited in Newell, 2000: 104) “The proposed carbon tax has been subject to the most ferocious lobbying ever seen in Brussels.”

Here’s a clip from another (?) Economist article from about the same time – “Europe’s industries play dirty”,

 Critics argue that if the commission was serious about global warming it should have proposed a pure carbon tax rather than a hybrid. The commission replies that energy efficiency is a desirable goal in itself, and that costlier energy would stimulate more research into renewable sources. In any case a pure carbon tax could never get past ministers, since it would clobber big coal burners (and producers) like Germany and Britain much harder than France, with its huge nuclear-power industry.” “The white paper has spurred the massed ranks of Europe’s industrialists to mount what is probably their most powerful offensive against an EC proposal. Some of the lobbying has been heavy-handed, such as the repeated and strange claim that the tax would destroy 900,000 jobs. (emphasis added)

Longer term? That depends on who you ask, and their mood.

  • Some will talk about multi-level perspectives and how much inertia there is in “socio-technical systems”, and how big vested interests are very determined and skilful at defending themselves.
  • The Marxists, (maybe overlapping with the MLP to a certain extent) will point to class power and state capture, with a side line in Harvey-ite analysis of the neoliberal project these last 40 years or so. Ignoreland etc.
  • The Majority World types will say that Western consumers didn’t want to forego their luxury emissions and baubles (cheap flights to New York/Barcelona/Adelaide etc) to allow them the space to develop outa poverty.
  • The psychoanalysts will talk about how humans fear their own (individual) extinction and “design” all sorts of ways of NOT talking about shit (har har) that matters. Check out Ernst Becker’s “The Denial of Death.”
  • The cynics and anarchists will point to hierarchy as “the game”, a giant reality distortion matrix where only information that is helpful to those in power is deemed ‘real’. Hegemony and all that.
  • The deep greens will say take the long view.  Climate change is only the latest manifestation of the species’ desire/need/talent for raping, pillaging and moving on when needed.  (Except there’s nowhere to move on TO.)

Who’s right? It doesn’t matter (probably they all are; the views are not mutually exclusive).  Basically, from late 1985 (the Villach conference) to, say, December 1997 (the Kyoto debacle), the species looked at the last window of opportunity it had to avoid extinction. And cheerfully, resolutely, bricked up the window.


Alders, J.G.M (1992) Opening speech on the occasion of the first International Conference on Carbon Dioxide Removal Energy Conversation. Management  Vol. 33, No. 5-8, pp. 283-286

Economist (1992) Europe’s industries play dirty, The Economist, 9th May

Newell, P. (2000) Climate for Change: Non-State Actors and the Global Politics of the Greenhouse Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Marc Hudson is doing a PhD on the Australian and United States Coal Industries and how they have acted on climate change over the last 30 years or so.  It’s a laff riot.

Update: 19th April 2014.  Ronald Kramer’s (2012) “Climate Change: A State-Corporate Crime Perspective” is 19 pages of depressing but important reading.


6 thoughts on ““Dutch citizens sue over climate change”. A little wade down memory canal. #climatehistory”

  1. Did you know British Coal had an experimental Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) plant at Hadfield Colliery in the 1980s? It was shut-down in about 1986, and you will find very little information about it. Though, an attempt to restart the project a few years ago, was also abandoned. The reason is, it is a very expensive method, needing expensive exotic metals, whilst reducing plant efficiency by as much as 25%. When I first learnt about CCS, it sounded a great idea, with the captured carbon being used to force Methane out of unexploited coal-seams. It, like Nuclear (fission, fusion or thorium), is just ‘pie-in-the-sky’ nonsense, diverting money from real renewables and energy efficiencies.
    Though the Dutch have not achieved what they were aiming for back in 1992. They have achieved a lot more than the UK. Building localised CHP (combined heat and power) plants supplying heat and electricity to new estates. Rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling, sustainable drainage systems, the Million roof campaign, safer cycling environment and better public transport. Unfortunately, corporation do not want to change, sticking with ‘business-as-usual’. Thankfully, some of the Dutch citizens are taking action, which cannot be said for the UK citizen.

    1. I have heard there are a variety of approaches that needed research and investment to realise economically worthwhile methods of carbon capture and only one was ‘experimentally’ followed at the time, as well as proposed methods of offsetting the costs by for example using additional technologies to transfer the carbon into useable products. I am not an expert, but the idea is that if the same R&D had been put into CCS as has been put into nuclear then we would have something worthwhile by now…?

      1. Hi Kooj, a VERY large amount of theoretical (and some practical!) work has been done on the various elements of carbon capture, transport and storage. There are technical, legal, political and above all financial/economic challenges too complex to go into.
        The view of the environmental NGOs (most of them) is that CCS is a rhetorical figleaf there to prop up fossil fuel companies. The amount of R and D that you’d have to spend could/should be spent on off-grid solutions, renewables etc etc. I am writing more on this, but the basic take home is – for CCS to “work” (financially) there would have to a (high) global price on carbon. And if that existed, the smart money would be flowing to wind, solar, energy efficiency etc… Best wishes Marc

      2. Thanks Marc, I get the whole thing of the industry and figleaf etc, maybe a high global price on carbon is needed indeed… though in the 80’s there is that sense of the social cost (miners communities) vs nuclear which is leaving a bitter taste and unfinished business to reconcile too, esp when those communities are seeing crass unregulated coal production continuing across the globe. Hmmm…

  2. Thanks Patrick, I had heard vague hints of something CCS-y in the UK in the 1980s. Pity there isn’t more info… we’re so toast.

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