Durban? What a waste of time!

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Don't bother keeping an eye on the Durban climate conference this week. That advice is from Marjan Minnesma. The woman voted top green entrepreneur in the Netherlands has a 'sisters are doing it for themselves' attitude. Not governments, but businesspeople like herself will save the planet, she says.

It's not easy for journalists to ignore events like Durban, where governments will be talking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But little has been achieved on the international stage since the Kyoto conference. "All talk and no action," sneers Minnesma. "Scientists disagree, voters underestimate the problem, and therefore governments don't do a thing about climate change."

[related-articles]Promoting solar
Marjan Minnesma's Amsterdam-based company Urgenda purchased 50,000 solar panels in China last year. The huge order meant she could bargain for a low price, and she passed the savings on to the thousands of Dutch home and business owners who bought them. "In a single business deal," Minnesma says, "we did more to promote solar power than the Dutch government has done for the past few years put together."

Urgenda has an ambitious plan to turn the Wadden Island of Texel into a model of sustainability that generates its own solar power, grows its own sustainable crops and serves as a testing area for new green technology. Texel has great showcase potential with 800,000 tourists on the island each year.

"There are already 30 entrepreneurs there who drive electric cars daily. There are 50 stations in Texel where you can charge your car battery."

Pre-seasoned potatoes
The newest innovation being tested on the island is farming on salty soil. "They grow salty potatoes there. So you don't need to cook with salt anymore. You just throw your salty potato in the water and it's already seasoned," Minnesma says.

"A lot of the Dutch groundwater is full of salt. We can keep irrigating with fresh water, which costs a lot of energy and water, or we can say we were the first in the world to develop the salty agriculture business."

Marjan Minnesma began her career at Royal Dutch Shell, of all places. She thought she could change the company from within. "I discovered I would need to stay there 20 or 30 years to make real changes." Minnesma doesn't have that much patience, or time for that matter. Nor does the planet, she says. "Climate change is an urgent problem."

Urgenda does a lot of awareness-raising because the mindset needs to change. People have to be convinced to take steps, even if their government is lagging behind. Minnesma works with people she calls "frontrunners", she explains.

"People who do things for the first time. People who stick their neck out and are willing to spend a bit more to be the first."

Spreading the word
The idea is that these trendsetters start using clean technology and "the masses" follow them, the entrepreneur says. "We try to change society by setting an example, getting others to follow and making the group of followers bigger and bigger." She points to England, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Austria as the countries where this model could work right away.

But in Russia and the USA, Minnesma warns, the oil and gas industries have too much influence. Even our southern neighbour Belgium is not moving fast enough.

"They have a rich subsidy programme for solar panels, but I don't see sustainability in the rest of their lifestyle. The subsidy has mainly made a few entrepreneurs very rich."

Minnesma believes big business can provide the real solution to environmental problems, as long as they have the right approach. She praises Unilever, which has set the goal of doubling its turnover and cutting its ecological footprint in half. "That is an enormous statement. If they really succeed within ten years they have done a major job."

Dying breed
On the downside, some companies are refusing to budge from their old ways.

"Energy companies are not playing a good role. They are old-fashioned, big animals of the last century that are going to die, and soon I hope. There are a few big electricity companies in the Netherlands that are still opening coal-fired power plants. That should be seen as immoral. We don't produce asbestos anymore, so we shouldn't be burning coal either."

Forget Durban
But Minnesma doesn't give a moment's thought to what the Dutch government might be pushing for at the climate conference in Durban this week.

"Forget these international negotiations. They won't do the trick. They will certainly delay. And we don't have that much time anymore. We can't wait until 186 countries come to a conclusion. Let's do it ourselves."