Sustainable Amsterdam — Mobilizing for A Clean, Prosperous Future

This is the second of a four-part series on Amsterdam’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and become a more sustainable city. It highlights Amsterdam’s plans to slash its greenhouse gas emissions 75 percent by 2040. 

Residential and commercial neighborhoods of Amsterdam stretch as far as the eye can see along Prinsengracht, the longest of Amsterdam’s four main canals. Image by International Energy Agency.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands — Amsterdam has set forth ambitious aspirations to slash its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). In Amsterdam: A Different Energy: 2040 Energy Strategy (2010), the city outlines its intention to become sustainable by 2040, emitting only a quarter as much GHG as in 1990. If Amsterdam succeeds, its 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 an 80 to 90 percent reduction in GHG by 2050. City leaders have long recognized, however, that achieving the 2050 goal will be a lengthy process requiring broad cooperation as well as patience and perseverance.

That’s why 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.

A Broad Sustainability 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.

Less than half of Amsterdam’s citizens report a passenger vehicle as their primary mode of transportation. Image by International Energy Agency.

That’s because the same steps that Amsterdam must take to reduce and ultimately eliminate fossil fuels will also 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, encompassing the use of public space as well as how energy, water, and material resources can be used more efficiently. For example, the city plans to make greater efforts at recycling urban waste and construction debris.

The goal is to more than double today’s recycling rate by separating 65 percent of urban waste by 2020 into resource flows of glass, paper, plastics, and even textiles. Simultaneously, the city plans on becoming more flood-proof with the help of green roofs and better stormwater management.

City leaders believe that accomplishing all these goals will make Amsterdam a more prosperous, cleaner, quieter, safer, more pleasant, and more affordable place to live. These improvements will help make Amsterdam a more socially diverse, inclusive, and sustainable city.

If successful, city leaders will also reduce both the cost and quantity of energy used per person and the carbon dioxide each inhabitant emits.

Dual Motivation for Change
The move toward sustainability has both an approach and an avoidance dimension. 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, its prices have been dropping steeply for several decades and in many places are at parity or cheaper than new fossil fuel power.

Amsterdam plans to have 4,000 public electric vehicle charging stations by 2018.

City leaders foresee that their sustainability plans will thus provide a bulwark against an eventual era of fossil fuel scarcity and higher prices. The Netherlands has been drawing down its once-abundant natural gas supplies for some time now and will have to start importing natural gas by 2025, as will much of the EU.

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 dependent on Russian natural gas, a dependency which is politically unpopular.

Accentuating the Positive
By reducing the need for fossil fuels, Amsterdammers expect that investments in modern, efficient, 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.

Amsterdam’s leaders have also understood that clean air and clean water are essential if the city is to be habitable, sustainable, and attractive to residents and businesses in the future. They know that a clean environment is intrinsically more attractive than a polluted one and that it is not only compatible with economic prosperity, but conducive to it.

Deloitte Ltd.’s Amsterdam headquarters received the Building Research Establishment’s highest sustainability rating ever for an office building. Image by Ronald Tilleman.

Chic, 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 with good public transport, compared to a city where public infrastructure has been allowed to decay and fossil fuel industries’ dominance remains unchallenged.

The Amsterdam perspective on the economic and lifestyle benefits of a clean-energy transition are in sharp contrast to the view promulgated by people who juxtapose environmental protection against economic growth and attempt to link clean energy with higher energy prices, privation, and economic distress.

By contrast, in Amsterdam: A Different Energy: 2040 Energy Strategy, the city’s aspirational climate and energy strategy study, city leaders declare 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.”

They therefore plan to mitigate GHG emissions while preparing the city to withstand the inevitable effects of climate change.

*This article was published at The Huffington Post on Aug. 1, 2016

Sustainable Amsterdam — An Ambitious Green Agenda

First of a four-part series on Amsterdam’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and become a more sustainable city. 

Residential neighborhood in Amsterdam adjacent to the Amstel River. Image by Miguel Anaya.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands — Knowing that a large and increasing share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from cities, and that the world is currently projected to warm 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, if not sooner, it is clearly imperative to reduce cities’ GHG emissions.

Cities account for 71-76 percent of global GHGs and a large fraction of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. (The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate puts the number at 85 percent; the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs puts it at two-thirds of the total.)

To get a better understanding of how leading European cities are planning to reduce their GHGs and accommodate to climate change, I traveled to Amsterdam (as well as Rotterdam, Ghent, Copenhagen, and Stockholm) in November 2015 to learn more about their successes and struggles.

Reducing cities’ GHGs to protect the climate may sound like a straightforward, linear process. Just set municipal targets, conduct appropriate studies, create policies, apply them, and watch emissions fall. Amsterdam’s experience as a front-runner in the global race to reduce GHGs, however, reveals that reality is messier

Reaching for Sustainability
To achieve its sustainability plans, the city is collaborating and seeking agreements with 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.

Through various programs, the city’s energy and environmental agenda, Sustainable Amsterdam, calls for increasing per person renewable energy production 20 percent from 2013 to 2020 while increasing the city’s installed solar energy capacity from 9 MW to 160 MW and reducing overall per person energy use by 20 percent.

Hardy Amsterdam cyclists navigate puddles in Nieuwezijdskolk, central Amsterdam. Image by Edwin Van Eis.

The city is also planning on an 18 MW increase in its installed wind power capacity by 2020―up 27 percent over current levels. (For more on that, watch for “Wind Energy Challenges in the Netherlands,” Huffington Post, forthcoming.) By then, the city plans to improve its air quality by reducing soot emissions by 30 percent and nitrogen dioxide concentrations by 35 percent.

Challenges Remain
While the city is, in general, making good progress on its agenda, some things are somewhat behind schedule. The city government had planned to be energy-neutral by 2015, but hasn’t yet succeeded.

After the goal was established in 2007, not enough money was initially allocated to retrofit the hundreds of city-owned buildings (29 percent of municipal CO2-emissions), or replace 110,000 existing streetlights (45 percent of emissions) 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 (compared with 2012).

The city also had planned to increase its solar generating capacity to 25 MW by 2016 but is only at 16 MW. (That’s still a 78 percent increase over 2013.) 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.

Electric Transport
Despite these quibbles, lots of good things are being accomplished in Amsterdam, and many ambitious, innovative programs are underway.

To stimulate electric vehicle (EV) demand to reduce air pollution, Amsterdam is increasing the number of its public EV charging stations from 1,000 in 2013 to 4,000 by 2018. (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.

Electric cars fill Dam Square during car2Go’s Amsterdam launch in 2011. Image by Alphons Nieuwenhuis.

Vehicle owners in Amsterdam who buy an electric car 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 by fossil-fueled vehicles are 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 the cooperation of both groups. 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.

A Tesla Model S taxi picks up a passenger at Schiphol, Amsterdam’s international airport. Image by Schiphol Group.

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 reached an agreement with its taxi fleet: All taxis within the city will have to be electric by 2025 and, during the transition, 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-emission or zero-emission vehicles and to combine loads to reduce the number of delivery trucks in the city.

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.

Amsterdam’s solid waste is burned in an incinerator 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 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.

Peter Paul Ekker, a spokesman for Amsterdam Alderman (and vice mayor for sustainability) Abdeluheb Choho said 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.”

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 developed, less well-governed, more fractious societies face far greater obstacles on their paths toward eventual sustainability.

Developing nations are increasing their GHG emissions rapidly today, typically at 5-6 percent per year. These countries and their large, rapidly growing cities, tend to be less homogeneous, less affluent, and less orderly than Amsterdam and other Western European capitals. Their challenges will likely be far greater than those Amsterdam has encountered.

*This article was published at The Huffington Post on July 29, 2016

Netherlands Faces Climate Challenges And Struggles For Consensus

First of a series of articles about the Netherlands’ efforts to increase its reliance on renewable energy and energy efficiency. This article tells how the Netherlands took its first major step toward a sustainable energy future beyond fossil fuels, plus the challenges that remain for the nation and the world.

Panoramic view of the Binnenhof, The Hague, where the Dutch Parliament meets. In 2015, a Dutch federal court in The Hague ordered the government to lower its carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Panoramic view of the Binnenhof, The Hague, where the Dutch Parliament meets. In 2015, a Dutch federal court in The Hague ordered the government to lower its carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Image by JESTERHAT84.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands ― I visited the Netherlands in November of last year as part of a European research trip to learn more about European cities seen as “front runners” in the global effort to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  

Today, 55 percent of all people on Earth live in cities, and two-thirds of all people or more are expected to be city dwellers in just 34 years, when global population will swell to 9.7 billion, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Therefore, unless the world’s cities are able to radically reduce their carbon emissions, it will be impossible for the world to keep greenhouse gas emissions from soaring to dangerous new heights.

Leader and Laggard

The Netherlands would like to be regarded as a pace-setter in clean energy but lags most other nations in the European Union. It currently gets only 5.8 percent of its energy from renewable sources, according to the Netherlands Statistical Bureau (CBS).

However, the capital city of Amsterdam has been making important strides toward sustainability and has ambitious climate goals. The city plans to reduce its carbon emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2025 and 75 percent lower by 2040. (Amsterdam’s efforts will be described in subsequent articles in this series.) Whereas the Netherlands, meanwhile, is striving to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, its climate policy is less ambitious and is marred by controversy.

Boats reflected in an Amsterdam canal, The Netherlands. Image by Geoguessr

Boats reflected in an Amsterdam canal, The Netherlands. Image by Geoguessr.

Breach of Duty

In response to a federal lawsuit in The Hague initiated in 2013 by Director Marjan Minnesma of the Urgenda Foundation and nearly 900 co-defendants, the Dutch government in June 2015 was put under a court order to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, compared with 1990 rates.

The court sided with the plaintiffs’ argument that under Article 21 of the Dutch Constitution and other binding legal documents, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the government’s failure to take more effective action to prevent climate change was breaching its duty to protect its citizens from harm.

Previously, the government’s 2020 goal was an emissions reduction of only 17 percent relative to 1990. It has appealed the decision, but while the case works its way through the appeals process, the government is implementing the ruling.

Eighteenth century windmills, once used to drain Holland’s fenlands (a type of marsh), are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the village of Kinderdijk, the Netherlands.

Eighteenth century windmills, once used to drain Holland’s fenlands (a type of marsh), are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the village of Kinderdijk, the Netherlands.

Reducing Reliance on Coal

Partly as a result of the ruling, the Dutch Parliament voted in November 2015 to phase out the use of coal in the Netherlands, although coal still provided about 40 percent of the nation’s electrical power in 2014. .

Three older coal plants have been shut down since 2014, and two more are now scheduled to close in 2017. However, three new ones with even greater capacity were opened in 2013 and 2014. Seven coal plants are currently operating, and it is not yet clear how long the coal phase-out will take. 

N.V. Nuon Energy’s 630 MW Hemweg coal power plant in Amsterdam, built in the 1990s, supplies energy to 3.1 million households. Image by VATTENFALL

N.V. Nuon Energy’s 630 MW Hemweg coal power plant in Amsterdam, built in the 1990s, supplies energy to 3.1 million households. Image by Vattenfall.

A Sustainability Accord

Confronted by criticism over its energy policy and the need to change, the government recognized that it needed business, labor, environmentalists and all segments of civil society on board to create a breakthrough energy policy.

On the initiative of a new coalition government comprised of the liberal-conservative Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), and the Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party), the Netherlands in 2012 adopted an Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growth containing an energy strategy to guide the country in a transition to a wholly sustainable national energy supply by 2050.

The Agreement was drafted by the country’s multi-stakeholder Social and Economic Council (SEC), comprised of politicians, scientists, and other experts from 40 organizations representing business, labor, the environmental sector, and other civil society groups.

The council advises the Dutch government on important social and economic issues with the goal of helping to insure that social prosperity is not construed solely in terms of material wealth and goods, but also in terms of social welfare and social cohesion.

Clean Energy Goals

Milestones set by the agreement include saving 1.5 percent of the country’s final energy consumption per year and increasing the proportion of the energy supplied by renewable energy from a mere 4.4 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2020 and 16 percent in 2023.

Activists such as Greenpeace Netherland’s Director Sylvia Borren view the planned 364 percent increase in renewable generation as a major milestone on the path toward a clean energy economy. “Holland [earlier] had done really badly on all aspects of climate change,” she said, unlike Germany and Denmark.

“A few years ago, Greenpeace managed to stop plans for a new nuclear plant,” Borren noted, and the group would like to see all fossil fuel phased out. 

Borren was a pivotal participant in the negotiating process that led to the energy accord, and she shared her insights about the process with me in a far-ranging Amsterdam interview.

The Netherlands has got some of the cleaner and more energy-efficient industries in the world, Borren said, and could be a leader in decarbonization. 

Carbon Pricing

“The chemical industry has said to me,” Borren reported, “that if the CO2 price in the European carbon trading market were €50-80, then we have so many good plans lying in our cupboards,” to cut our carbon emissions. But currently, she said, “the CO2 price is €8” and industry is not prepared to invest in them for that reason.

Not only is the European emissions trading scheme not working, Borren asserted, but she called it “a perverse scheme,” no more legitimate, for example, than a system for trading child labor rights.

A child labor trading system, she explained, would provide that if you bought a child labor permit in one area, “you [could] trade child labor rights and have a bit more child labor in another.”

Some important energy efficiency measures have already been adopted in the Netherlands. Laws require that all businesses must implement any cost-effective CO2-saving production method that will pay for itself within five years

“That’s a good law,” Borren said, “but it’s not being being implemented and enforced enough.”

Tough Negotiations

That’s when the Council entered the picture to conduct a collaborative and traditional multi-stakeholder Dutch negotiating and decision-making effort based on the country’s venerable “polder model” to help get results. (See “The Polder Model.”)

Realizing that this forum would play an important role in deciding the nation’s energy future, Greenpeace in 2013 abandoned its customary role as an outsider and decided to join in the process.


The Polder Model

A polder is an area of land reclaimed from the sea by diking. The polder model is a pragmatic, consensus decision-making process that is based on the historic efforts undertaken by Dutch communities from the Middle Ages on to cooperatively build and maintain dikes, both to protect themselves from the sea and to reclaim land for farming and development.

A quarter of the Netherlands lies below sea level. The need for the regular maintenance and repair of dikes and windmills for the pumping of the polders engendered the Dutch habit of cooperation—even across social classes—and a respect for strong governance to manage the polder to prevent disastrous flooding. Cooperation was a matter of life and death.

Today the polder process is internationally known as a way of negotiating a multi-party deal with as little social disturbance, strikes, or top-down government mandates as possible. Labor unions and business groups have used the process to share the impacts of government austerity.

“We have a long history of slow political decision-making through getting all the interested parties in a room and coming to a deal. That’s very much part of our political heritage.” Sylvia Borren explained.

“It is sometimes seen as slow and torturous [but] on the other hand, we do get results with the polder model, because many interested parties have to commit themselves,” she noted.

An array of polders and dikes in the countryside of Grootschermer, the Netherlands. Image by Edward Burtynsky.

An array of polders and dikes in the countryside of Grootschermer, the Netherlands. Image by Edward Burtynsky.


After months of tough negotiations, the Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growthdeal was signed on September 6, 2013, and Borren saw it as a big breakthrough on renewable energy and energy saving.

The deal provides for increases in wind and solar power production, energy conservation, and some 50 sub-goals, including the closure of old coal plants. “We could easily provide all our energy needs by wind and solar with smart grids to flatten out power peaks and troughs,” Borren asserted.

Towards the end of the negotiating process, Greenpeace conducted demonstrations outside Heineken’s and other large multinational Dutch companies to pressure them to support an ambitious agreement.   

“We had other environmental organizations who worked very hard with us on this. We also had a number of green industry leaders who wanted to move faster in the same direction,” Borren said.

Poldering Coalitions

There were many coalitions among the 49 parties to the SEC negotiations, including a green business community coalition and a general business community coalition. 

“One of the hardest things of even getting to a deal is that we’re working with coalitions,” Borren said. “The business coalition always listen to the more conservative voices in their huge coalition.” Two major trade unions also participated.

“The real breakthrough came when we managed to put pressure on the big members of the business community coalition to move with us and put more pressure on the [government] ministers.” Final negotiations were thus held with government ministers and state secretaries.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary Compliance

Both the liberal-conservative party and the association representing the business community have not wanted compulsory carbon-reduction measures, Borren said. The environmental community in the Netherlands was willing to give voluntary measures a try, but now believes that compulsory measures are needed.

The current policy of just encouraging business to act through good will but without financial incentives or eventual compulsory requirements “will not produce transformation fast enough,” she said. “I do believe that we are moving in the right direction, but far too slow,” she declared.

 Implementing the Energy Agreement

The main mechanism for achieving the Netherlands’ projected growth in renewable generation under the Agreement was to be the Sustainable Energy Incentive or SDE, revised as SDE+ in 2011. SDE+ is a subsidy payment from the government to renewable energy producers of power, gas, and heat, paid for by a surcharge on consumers’ energy bills.

Known as a feed-in tariff or premium, SDE+ is designed to ensure that renewable energy production is profitable by covering the difference in the price of renewable energy compared with fossil fuel-based energy for 12- or 15-year periods.

To fulfill the agreement’s wind energy goals, the Agreement calls on the nation to scale up its wind capacity. Offshore wind was to grow from about 1,000 MW in 2010 to 4,450 in 2023. Onshore wind—then about 2,000 MW of capacity—was to be tripled by 2020. This was to be done under regulations set by the Netherlands’ provincial governments. But this process has not always gone smoothly.

The 122 MW Zuidlob wind farm in the central province of Flevoland, Netherlands, where most of the country’s wind power is produced. Image by Jan Oelker.

The 122 MW Zuidlob wind farm in the central province of Flevoland, Netherlands, where most of the country’s wind power is produced. Image by Jan Oelker.

(In a forthcoming article, “Wind Energy Challenges in the Netherlands,” [part 5 of the Netherlands series], I will describe some of the problems that people in the Province of North Holland have encountered in expanding the area’s wind capacity in order to move from clean energy planning to reality.)

Lessons Learned

Towards the end of the interview, I asked Borren what she thought the most important lesson was that the world could glean by looking at the process that the Netherlands is going through right now in trying to wean itself from fossil fuels?

“The positive lesson,” she replied, “is that you can get nearly 50 partners around a table and get to a half glass half-full deal. The negative lesson . . . is that when you have a lot of signatures under such a deal, and leadership changes,” then people negotiate backwards after the deal is done.

“[W]e’ve got to have a carrot and a stick in order to keep moving in the right direction. I don’t believe that good will is enough, in terms of the time that we have.” If it was, she added, “we would have had a successful climate deal 25 years ago.”

Borren spends her weekends in a small conservative farming village of 3,000 people outside of Amsterdam. Young people have been leaving, and the community is aging. Borren is encouraged, however, that the village has “re-engaged” some people and now seems to be moving toward a renewable energy economy. “They’re actually revitalizing both the local economy and their social life in a way that’s quite astonishing,” she said enthusiastically.

In the next article of this series, “Sustainable Amsterdam, Part 1—An Ambitious Green Agenda,” I will describe the city’s plans for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

*This article was published at The Huffington Post on July 27, 2016

Crisis in the Cryosphere


The global climate agreement reached in Paris late in 2015, which sets specific targets nations will aim for in limiting emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gas, was widely and justly regarded as a diplomatic triumph.

But the accord never mentions the cryosphere, the frigid regions that include the planet’s polar ice caps; ice fields; mountain glaciers; and permafrost, or perennially frozen soil. Even if the emission-reduction targets are met, it won’t be enough prevent the cryosphere from thawing, tipping us into the sort of climate the world hasn’t seen in 30-50 million years, and certainly not since humans have existed.

A Planetary Freezer

The crucial element in this scenario is permafrost, which is like a giant carbon deep-freeze. If we pull the plug on it by allowing it to thaw, plant matter that has been on ice for ages will decompose, and release carbon dioxide or methane or both into the atmosphere. Those gases will trap extra heat and raise global temperatures beyond what our fossil-fuel-based carbon emissions would do on their own.

The faster these gases emerge from the permafrost, the less carbon human society can release and still keep global temperatures from rising far above the aspirational temperature targets set by the Paris accord. The official goal of the agreement is to limit the increase in global average temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C …”

But that official goal is unrealistic. Modeling by independent climate research groups has shown that the pledges outlined in the agreement would actually result in global average temperature gains of 2.7 °C to 3.5 °C by 2100, with an ultimate peak of 3.4 °C to 4.2 °C by the time Earth’s temperature stopped rising. And that doesn’t include the extra carbon now expected to be released from thawing permafrost. New calculations about the likely extent of those releases was simply too recent to incorporate into the accord.

What the Freezer Holds

“We know that the permafrost contains an enormous amount of carbon,” said Dr. Max Holmes, a senior climate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, MA. “Twice as much as in the atmosphere and three times as much as all vegetation on Earth.” The more quickly the carbon emerges, the greater the risk of triggering catastrophic climate change.

Models project that 30-70% of the world’s permafrost will thaw this century to a depth of about ten feet. Dr. Sue Natali, a colleague of Dr. Holmes at Woods Hole commented, “It’s going to be a slow release, not an explosion, and it’ll be faster after 2100.” “Once permafrost thaws,” she noted, “there’s no action we can take to stop the release of carbon,” she warned. Unlike temperature changes, cryosphere processes are typically irreversible.

Dr. Natali’s concern is underscored by a recent article in Nature Geoscience showing that the permafrost covering up to two-thirds of the terrestrial Arctic is degrading rapidly, causing major landscape and hydrology changes.

Meanwhile, a new survey of 98 permafrost experts in Environmental Research Letters indicates that we can’t count on the growth of new plants in the Arctic to offset permafrost carbon releases by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, as some researchers had optimistically theorized. Instead, the permafrost region will become a source of extra carbon in the atmosphere by 2100, no matter what warming scenario the world follows.

On the bright side, the survey concluded that up to 85% of the permafrost-region carbon releases associated with a business-as-usual emissions scenario could be avoided, if net global emissions peaked within a decade or so, reached zero by around 2070, and became negative by 2100.

Our Carbon “Headroom”

The world’s permafrost stretches across 24 percent of the Arctic and contains 1.5 trillion tons of carbon. The permafrost could release as much as 130-160 billion tons of carbon just between now and 2100, according to a report from the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICC). That would be roughly 100 times the carbon the U.S. annually emits from all fossil fuel and cement production.

Unlike emissions from fossil fuel combustion, emissions from thawing permafrost, in the form of methane and carbon dioxide, amplify themselves by causing extra warming that leads to even more thawing.  In conjunction with society’s other emissions, the permafrost emissions could therefore lead to an out-of-control, self-reinforcing cycle of warming, thawing, further warming, and so on.

When permafrost emissions are included in the global allowable carbon “headroom” budget that the world can still in theory afford to emit and still stay below 2 °C of warming, then according to ICCI permafrost experts, the headroom for human emissions shrinks to only 115 billion tons of carbon, versus the 275 billion tons once presumed.

This means we have far less time to adjust our collective greenhouse gas emissions because we can now emit less than half as much additional carbon as we thought.  We will have to act faster; transition costs to a clean energy economy will be higher; and our technological options will be fewer.

*This article was published at the Scientific American on April 14, 2016

New Yale Study Finds Public Still Deeply Misinformed About Climate Change Risks

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A Yale Study on public perceptions of climate change risk reveals that much of the American public is deeply misinformed about climate change. Researchers with the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication organized their study results into a series of interactive maps that allow viewers to display national polling results by state, congressional district, or county. The study results included the following findings:

  • Only 48 percent of the public agreed that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.
  • Even fewer, only 41 percent, agreed that most scientists think global warming is happening.
  • 48 percent were not worried about global warming.
  • Whereas 42 percent agreed that global warming is already harming people in the U.S., only 34 percent agreed that “global warming will harm me personally” (greatly or moderately).
  • 51 percent agreed global warming will harm people in the US during the next 10 years.
  • 35 percent doubted that global warming will harm people in developing countries.

If only forty-eight percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, current educational efforts need to be greatly intensified.   Furthermore, even though many Americans have already been affected by climate change, the fact that only thirty-four percent believe global warming will harm them personally in the future also indicates profound and widespread misunderstanding about climate change

The good news is, seventy-seven percent of Americans agree that government should be funding research on renewable energy, and seventy-four percent agree that the government should regulate CO2 as a pollutant.  Thus, while many Americans remain ignorant about the causes of global warming and the severity of its impacts, they nonetheless support some policy measures that will help mitigate climate change.  Unfortunately, only forty-four percent of Americans favor a revenue-neutral (fully refunded) carbon tax, suggesting that while they support a shift to clean energy, they are unwilling to support any new taxes, even if rebated, that would accelerate the clean energy shift.


Yale Climate Opinion Maps

Largest U.S. Nuclear Power Plant Operator Seeks Carbon Credits to Keep Plants Running

Three Mile Island, one of Exelon’s more famous plants. Image by George D. Lepp

Three Mile Island – one of Exelon’s more well-known nuclear power plants.
Image by George D. Lepp

In a strategic move to obtain carbon credit payments intended for clean energy sources, a major U.S. nuclear power plant operator is asking public officials in Illinois to allow it sell carbon credits to alleviate its financial woes.

Exelon Corp., which operates more nuclear power plants than any other company in the U.S., competes today in its sale of electricity with relatively cheap natural gas. The company says it may have to close three of its plants in Illinois if the state does not change its rules so that Exelon can sell carbon credits to electricity suppliers in the state.

That would enable Exelon to indirectly secure ratepayers funds intended to promote the production of truly clean and renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and small hydro.

By contrast, nuclear power plants cause carbon emissions during the mining, milling, enrichment, and fabrication of uranium fuel, and they produce highly toxic and carcinogenic radioactive waste in their spent fuel.

They also present unique risks of potentially catastrophic core-meltdown accidents from a variety of causes, including equipment malfunctions, operator errors, terrorist sabotage and attack, or natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tsunami’s. Some of these low-probability, high-consequence events have already occurred on a number of occasions throughout the world.

In a further contrast to truly clean and sustainable power sources like solar and wind, U.S. nuclear power plants use fuel made with uranium-235, a finite fuel that exists in limited quantities. As high-grade ores are depleted, the costs of mining and milling lower grade supplies increases.


Nation’s Biggest Nuclear Firm Makes a Play for Green Money

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Capitalism vs. Climate in Perspective—Thoughts on Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything

lima call to climate action

COP20, The UN global climate talks that recently concluded in Lima, Peru.

This book clearly shows how monumental the challenges are that must be surmounted if we are to protect the climate and insure social justice.

BERKELEY, CA—January 19, 2015 – Naomi Klein’s remarkable book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014) is a deeply insightful and unflinching look at the global threats posed by climate change, environmental devastation, and economic injustice.

Klein offers up a new framework for understanding the economic and political roadblocks preventing progress on climate protection and social justice. She does not, however, offer a “one-size-fits-all” solution that will work everywhere around the world.

Instead, she points to tactics—like building broad domestic coalitions with strong global ties to Progressive forces abroad—that could lead to the creation of diverse global solutions.

Klein’s solutions are best suited to the U.S. and other advanced economies and thus don’t seem to grapple with the problems of burgeoning global population, oil-producing Middle Eastern dictatorships, volatile impoverished nations like Pakistan, and rapidly developing, coal-reliant economic powerhouses like India and China.

Today’s economic and climate challenges represent a unique “climate moment,” Klein says, and we must seize it in order to implement sweeping new economic and environmental policies for reorienting humanity’s relationship to the natural resources that sustain life on Earth.

This Changes Everything is at its core as much about the redistribution of wealth and power on a planetary scale as well as about the ecocide we’re committing in assailing the climate.

Klein thus argues that we must make a revolutionary shift from an unsustainable economic model based on resource extraction and the exploitation of people to a relationship of interconnection and reciprocity with the natural world. Easier said than done.

To bring this about, we have to build a broad social movement, she declares. It needs to be founded on basic moral values and ecological principles, rather than those of unfettered free enterprise, profit maximization, and perpetual economic growth. The steps on the path to creating this movement, however, are never clearly laid out.

False Ideology and The Policies It Vindicates

The current climate impasse, Klein says, stems from acceding to the fundamentalist free-market capitalism paradigm, a false ideology rife with deep contradictions.

It rests on a counterfactual belief in infinite growth and on the tenets of minimalist passive governance, hostility to regulation, and aversion to public sector investment.

That pretty well nails the Tea Party, Libertarians, and today’s Republican Party, many of whom still deny climate science itself, despite overwhelming evidence.

Their free-market worldview, she believes, has brought us over the edge of disaster to the brink of catastrophic climate change.

Commonsense responses to the climate crisis have been blocked, she tells us, by multinational corporations and other vested interests, especially large energy corporations. So, a core battle of ideas must be fought and won to delegitimize them and their policies before effective massive action to take on global warming can succeed.

That means supplanting the free-market paradigm of resource extraction and perpetual growth with a more sustainable model based on resource stewardship and regeneration.

But to do that, you need a broad popular movement to curb the influence of corporate money and oligarchic wealth in politics and to force government to regulate corporations and invest in a far-reaching economic transformation.

Once you postulate a powerful social movement in the service of climate protection and social justice, the rest of Klein’s long-term agenda begins to seem more feasible, although it ultimately requires a major economic restructuring, lifestyle changes, and a political transformation, as well as policies aimed at reducing consumption—a politically taboo subject.

Klein’s solutions also require long-term energy and economic planning with an emphasis on the kind of decentralized renewable energy production that has proven so successful for many farmers and ranchers in Western Europe and the U.S., plus investments in energy efficiency and electric vehicles.

She envisions an expansion of the public safety net, carbon taxes, and greater support for infrastructure, including mass transit with electric trains powered by renewable energy. As Klein understands, entrenched vested interests will fight these reforms tooth and claw.

Building a Mass Movement

Advocacy of job-creating public investment could indeed serve as a nucleus around which a broadly based social movement could begin to coalesce, but whether it could be induced to embrace Klein’s larger agenda is unclear.

naomi klein rally

Naomi Klein addressing a rally.

This movement would likely first be dominated by “bread-and-butter” issues. Then smart leadership would need to weave climate concerns into core demands for jobs, higher wages, less inequality, and a better environment.

The broad movement could flourish through the implementation of a “Marshall Plan for the Earth,” to which Klein makes a couple of references.

Where Power Ultimately Resides

Klein has great faith in the activism of indigenous people to block fossil fuel development and inspire broader public opposition. She evidently sees these and other local “pockets of resistance” to fossil fuel encroachment as the yeast from which the broad social movement will arise. Here her argument may be more a leap of faith.

These local communities trying to block resource extraction projects don’t have the power to change the U.S. tax code or alter national spending priorities or ram big, New Deal-like social programs through a recalcitrant Congress, all of which must eventually be done to protect the climate.

Yet their isolated pitched battles may be like sparks awakening the conscience of a nation, particularly youth and those who live in the urban population centers where political power is concentrated and middle class movements are likely to arise.

In any case, brilliant as it is, This Changes Everything never fully explains the step-wise process by which the seeds of resistance are transformed into that vitally necessary mass climate movement so key to Klein’s vision.

Klein seems to believe that like lightning striking a mixture of amino acids in a beaker, the recurrence of ever-more serious climate-related disasters will catalyze the creation of the movement.

But even huge disasters like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina have not yet done so, though they have already clobbered tens of millions of people. If a truly colossal disaster on a gargantuan scale is required to finally empower such a movement, it may by then be too late.

1,029 words


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 Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis and Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science.

Follow John J. Berger on Twitter:

This article was adapted from two longer articles that appeared recently on Huffington Post and on Communities Digital News.
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