Rotterdam: an environmental revolution in an industrial port

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You might have difficulty believing Rotterdam has high environmental ambitions as you exit the city’s central station. It’s like walking into a building site and once past that there is the busy traffic. However, The Rotterdam Climate Initiative aims to reduce CO2 emissions in the international port by 50 percent and the city hopes to become ‘climate proof’ by 2025.

There’s a whole range of projects underway to achieve this. If you look up, you’ll see solar cells embedded in the glass in Europe’s biggest solar station roof. Meanwhile, excess heat from the port’s industries is transported as steam by pipeline to heat a million homes in the city. And, to demonstrate how clean the water is, the World Wildlife Fund recently reintroduced sturgeon into Rotterdam’s Meuse river after 50 years of absence due to pollution.

Although it is not immediately obvious, there’s an environmental revolution taking place in the international port. As visitors walk between the skyscrapers, they are unaware that more and more of them have fields of tiny sedum plants on the roof. The city council even offers subsidies to residents to grow their own “green roofs”. The benefits are many: the vegetation reduces CO2 emissions and buffers noise, saves energy, soaks up excess water after a deluge, reduces roof maintenance requirements and even cools the city a little.

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Acting locally

In our series Acting locally we are looking at people who make a difference at grassroots level. Forget ministers and MPs - what impact do city councillors, provincial representatives or village aldermen have on our daily lives?

Brundtland Commission
So how does the city manage to sponsor green initiatives like this when it is making cuts to the tune of 225 million euros a year? Rotterdam’s Democrats 66 alderwoman for the environment Alexandra van Huffelen says, “What we do is more facilitating, helping where we can. We have programmes to stimulate projects like the green roofs, because we think it’s important. But you have to make sure that the market takes over after a few years.” Businesses in Rotterdam are being asked to contribute 11.5 billion euros to achieve the city’s environmental ambitions.

Ms van Huffelen is not your average environmentalist. She’s smartly dressed, with make-up and perfectly coiffed hair. Nevertheless, she is the highest new entry in Dutch daily newspaper Trouw’s Sustainable Top 100 at number 12. She definitely leads a green lifestyle - she does not own a car, bikes everywhere - even on holiday, and uses public transport. She also uses less energy where possible and, perhaps more importantly, tries to avoid any kind of wastage. So what motivates her to put the environment so high on her own – and the city’s – agenda?

“It is the only thing we have to make sure we survive as a species. I think it’s important for people to enjoy their time on the planet. They need green areas, clean air, and healthy food, to be able to get around in a good way. I’m a strong believer in what the Brundtland Commission says: We have to make sure the choices we make now are not hampering the choices of future generations.”

WNF Leaders for a Living Planet

While the city council is taking on the bigger projects, ordinary Rotterdammers are not afraid to get their hands dirty. An 800-metre-long rooftop park is being built on the site of the old harbour railway yard in Delfshaven, but right next to it local residents have created their own green oasis in Proefpark De Punt with greenhouses, chicken coops, allotments and a playground.

The residents of Heijplaat, a neighbourhood built for dockworkers, have gone a step further. They were awarded the title World Wildlife Fund’s Leaders for a Living Planet earlier this month. The residents have switched completely to renewable energy and their ambition is to become a CO2 neutral neighbourhood with help from Unilever, the World Wildlife Fund and the government.

So how does the city council persuade ordinary people to change their behaviour, especially in an area with low incomes and high unemployment like Heijplaat? Ms van Huffelen explains.

“These people have said they want to take their future into their own hands. So, with help from the national government, Rotterdam, energy companies and WWF, they have said ‘let’s become climate neutral’.”

Stable environmental policies
As a result, Rotterdam has just earned itself another environmental award – Best Climate Street Municipality in the Netherlands – with 164 streets in the city setting their own environmental targets, such as reducing CO2 emissions by insulating homes, installing solar panels, eating less meat, driving less often. Ms Van Huffelen says there are two things that trigger people to adopt a greener lifestyle.

“People believe it is basically right; they’ve been brought up not to waste things. But people have quite high energy bills and they are getting higher so now they really have an incentive.”

However, the most important factor in changing consumer behaviour and getting companies to take responsibility for the environment, according to Ms van Huffelen, is not subsidies, pilot projects or even high environmental targets, but stable environmental policies. Companies need to know what the government wants of them.

Environment minister
The current caretaker government has neglected the environment over the last one and a half years. But Mark Rutte’s coalition has fallen and a new wind is blowing in The Hague. The Spring Agreement on far-reaching austerity measures negotiated by the coalition parties and three opposition parties includes a raft of environmental policies and two hundred million euros for sustainable development.

Ms van Huffelen laughs at the suggestion she might be a good candidate for the next minister for the environment; indeed the outgoing government does not even have one. “I hope there is going to be a minister for the environment and a government with a very strong environmental policy.” She feels the Netherlands has gone from being a frontrunner to bringing up the rear and says that it wouldn´t just be good for the environment - it would be good for the economy too.

She has been in office for two years – exactly half of her four-year term. So what would she like to achieve in the next two years? “What I would like to see most is a strong sense of sustainability at the heart of our economy.”

Read: Super-saver racing through Rotterdam