15 May 2019

Utrecht scientists share expertise in the House of Representatives climate debate

Five Utrecht University researchers specialising in energy and sustainability have taken part in the Dutch House of Representatives’ round-table discussions. This direct impact on Dutch policy offers excellent opportunities to bring academic value to the debate about the climate. Dr Sanne Akerboom shared her knowledge about public support for energy transition; Prof Gert Jan Kramer commented on his review of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency's (PBL) calculations of the effects of the Climate Agreement; Prof Wilfried van Sark looked at the possibilities of solar panels, Prof Ernst Worrell stressed the need for rapid action in improving the sustainability of industrial energy consumption and Prof Hens Runhaar called for concrete agreements and undertakings in the agricultural sector.

Sanne Akerboom: Involve the public in the energy transition

Dr Sanne Akerboom is conducting research into support of and participation in the energy transition. In the round-table discussion on sector-wide aspects of the climate agreement she emphasised how important this is in wind energy and the built environment with no natural gas. “There is opposition to any wind project”, she explained. “The cause can be found in the processes leading up to it. There are delays, which mean that objectives are not met and need to be adjusted.”

But how do you get people on board? By ensuring that they are involved from the outset, emphasised Akerboom. She called for an honest energy transition, in which people themselves have the opportunity to shape their own energy transition. There needs to be greater focus on people who struggle to pay the energy bill at the end of the month. It is not only industry that has limited resources, the same applies to households.

Gert Jan Kramer: Electricity sector takes the lead

Prof Gert Jan Kramer attended the round-table discussion on the PBL’s calculations of the effects of the Climate Agreement as one of the report’s four reviewers. The main focus of Kramer and his colleagues was whether the five major sectors are presenting an honest picture. Although they were able to give a positive answer to that question, they noted a huge difference between the electricity sector and all other sectors. The road forward may be clear for the electricity sector, but this does not yet apply to the other sectors. According to Kramer, this is not because of the climate agreement or the calculations, but the stage we are currently at in the transition.

When it comes to electricity, we know what we need to do. But what will we do with fuels, for example? Greater clarity is needed in that respect. Kramer complimented the PBL for identifying and categorising the uncertainties. It is important for communication to be as clear as possible, he said. At times, the reviewers were confused because many figures were relative compared to previous plans. Absolute figures provide a clearer picture.

Wilfried van Sark: Integration becomes automatic

Prof Wilfried van Sark applied his expertise during the round-table discussion on the Built Environment. He argued that solar panels are an aspect of improving the sustainability of the built environment that is often neglected. Van Sark aims to achieve a built environment in which you can no longer tell that a wall or roof is a solar panel. This would enable the integration of solar energy to become automatic. But a solar panel on the roof alone will not be enough – you need to use the entire building envelope to generate electricity, because you will also need to charge your electric car and heat the house.

Although this is not possible in every home, there are plenty of large office buildings with a lot of glass and therefore no shortage of opportunities. However, these integrated solar cells generate less energy. In a creative intervention, Van Sark raised the issue of the ‘shame panel’. This refers to the three solar panels attached to new buildings to enable project developers to claim that they meet a certain energy performance standard. Van Sark strongly disapproves of this. Van Sark has hopes of collaboration with Dutch players who are developing innovative ways of integrating solar panels in order to make major progress in the Dutch economy.

Ernst Worrell: Rapid action is needed

Prof Ernst Worrell took part in the round-table discussion on Industry. With 35 years’ experience with Dutch and international companies, he can contribute to making industry more sustainable. “Rapid action is needed in terms of industrial energy consumption”, he argued. “Worldwide, we have a CO2 budget of 2,900 gigatonnes and we’ve already consumed 2,000 of that. The remaining 900 is the absolute maximum that we can emit and so every tonne we save really counts.”

The Netherlands has a unique industrial environment: we have a relatively large amount of heavy industry, thanks to cheap natural gas. But this is set to change as natural gas becomes more expensive. The industry of the future will look quite different. If we want to hold onto that industry, we will need to start offering cheap, renewable electricity. But the question is whether we can achieve that. So far, the Environmental Management Act has failed to deliver because enforcement appears to be ineffective. Worrell is concerned about that. He called for all opportunities to be seized: energy conservation, carbon capture and storage, hybrid systems and more. However, this will require a system analysis that has yet to be conducted. It will be up to the government to support this analysis.

Hens Runhaar: Concrete agreements and undertakings

Prof Hens Runhaar was a guest at the round-table discussion on Agriculture. He commented on the design of the climate agreement from the perspective of a public-administration specialist and two things sprang to his attention. First of all, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture is also focusing on other policy objectives, including biodiversity, circularity and the quality of the landscape. But Runhaar says the link between climate goals and other policy objectives is missing, with trade-offs as a risk. One solution could be to develop the climate agreement into policy-specific plans, in which measures are explicitly evaluated and prioritised in terms of their contribution to several policy objectives.

Secondly, not all measures can be equally applied in conventional agriculture. This creates the risk that the climate targets will not be achieved. Additional subsidies and new revenue models could help win farmers over. “My own research shows that farmers are willing to make sustainability improvements, but have only limited room for manoeuvre”, he explains. “Concrete agreements on emission reductions are seriously needed. Farmers also need concrete undertakings with regard to financial and other support from processors, traders, water boards, provinces, retailers and other actors. Finally, the sector must be offered clear prospects for the future.