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Bridging the real gaps in sustainability policies in 2020

17 Dec 2019 - 15:47

2019 has been a moving year in international as well as national sustainability policies. More people than ever before seem to realise that there are very important decisions at stake that in the near future will fundamentally change the world as we know it.

This year in the Netherlands, an administrative court ruling on excessive nitrogen emissions forced government to take very strict measures to curb these emissions. The measures included a temporary stop on hundreds of large and small building projects in the Netherlands.

Anyone betting on this political U-turn in the Netherlands only a year ago now probably would have been very rich

Politically even more remarkable, they also included stricter highway speed-limits ‘for the sake of jobs’ announced by the ruling coalition government under liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Anyone betting on this political U-turn only a year ago now probably would have been very rich.

One more seismic shock in national politics was caused by the earthquakes due to the exploitation of the Groningen gas field, which for decades was the dominant factor in national energy policies.

As a result of large public pressure that had built up, it was unexpectedly decided in 2019 to end the exploitation of this gas field already in 2022 – eight years before the only shortly before decided exploitation stop in 2030.

Internationally, the sustainability event of 2019 was probably the announcement of the EU Green Deal. At its start in office, the new European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen has published very ambitious plans to make Europe ‘the first climate-neutral continent.’ These plans have to be rolled out from 2020 onwards.

A farmer protest in the Netherlands caused the largest traffic jam ever in the country

At the same time, major public resistance against societal change towards sustainability is building up. Feeling to be treated as the scapegoats of the nitrogen crisis, farmers in the Netherlands mobilised against the nitrogen measures in a way never seen before.

By driving from all over the Netherlands in their tractors towards a national manifestation in The Hague, they caused the largest traffic jam ever in the country. And after the 2019 Provincial elections, the new climate-sceptic party ‘Forum voor Democratie’ together with the liberal party has become the largest party in the Dutch Senate.

In the global arena, a lukewarm agreement at the Madrid climate conference once again showed that short-term economic interests of several countries conflict with those of countries that externally defend an international climate deal for the sake of the global good, and internally hope to profit economically from stricter climate policies.

This also holds for the EU, which seeks to build up new competitive advantages with its Green Deal, but at the same time in increasingly stricter ways prevents refugees that want to share in its narrow regional sustainability from entering the ‘green castle.’

Rather than closing the often cited ‘emission gaps’ between nationally decided climate policies and international climate goals, decisive steps on international sustainability in 2020 are therefore likely to depend on closing three far more fundamental international sustainability policy gaps:

One between citizens within countries that hope to gain from a transition and those that fear to lose out, one between countries that might be winners of change and those that are likely to be losers, and one between the rich and the global poor who only want to share a bit in the wealth of the ‘haves’ in this world.

In order to measure progress towards international sustainability, I suggest therefore that sustainability watchers in 2020 keep their eyes open on the extent to which these bridges will be built in the new year.