'Towards sustainable environmental governance' – The Dutch Perspective

Ambassador Gonggrijp spoke at an event of the Central Environmental Authority about the Dutch perspective on the road towards sustainable environmental governance.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I sometimes look at my two boys, picture their future and - I have to confess – I am not at ease. It feels like their generation and those following will have difficulties that we cannot yet foresee. What will the future look like for our children? Do I have confidence that the next generations will be fine? And do you?   

Today the topic of climate change is high on all agenda’s. Not because of the recent COP 26, but mostly because every day somewhere in the world we are being confronted with the consequences of climate change. Floods, droughts, fires, hunger, conflicts.

I am sure you all know that one third of the Netherlands is below sea level. We are extremely vulnerable to rising temperatures and rising sea levels. And also Sri Lanka very much feels the consequences of climate change.

There is no doubt that we have to manage this together, but somehow we do not manage to do so, very well. There are many reasons for that, but one important factor is that we need a long term vision and strategy. We need to invest now to secure our tomorrow.

This is where the importance of governance comes in: we need to collectively govern our environment, our planet, our world.

And we cannot say that in the past decades nothing happened in terms of attempts to govern our collective environment based on longer term visions. In 1992 the international community developed the Agenda 21. And in 2000 the international community agreed upon the Millennium Development Goals. In 2015 we all adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. This ambitious agenda should serve as a reference point for international environmental governance. And indeed, both Sri Lanka and the Netherlands have embraced the SDGs: we work towards the same vision.

So how does the Netherlands do this? What does environmental governance towards the SDGs, towards sustainable development look like?

From an environmental perspective, the Netherlands’ national priorities include energy transition, climate action, enhancing environmental protection and biodiversity. Our main environmental governance aim focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Dutch government has endeavored to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, and we are – like Sri Lanka - working towards carbon neutrality by 2050. In the EU this 55% plan is often referred to as Fit for 55. Sounds like an exercise program for the middle-aged, but Fit for 55 will entail drastic changes for everybody.

Our national climate goals were laid down in the Climate Act in 2019. The government is required to draw up a Climate Plan setting out measures to ensure that the targets stipulated are achieved. The National Climate Agreement contains agreements with different sectors on what they will do to help achieve these climate goals. These sectors include: electricity, industry, built environment, traffic and transport, and agriculture.

In April 2020, the Dutch government announced a set of climate policies to reduce annual carbon emissions by nearly 10 megatons; several new coal power plants are to be closed or run at minimum capacity, a 3 billion Euro spending package will subsidize renewable energy projects and home refits, and there are a number of policy adjustments, for example on livestock numbers, reforestation and even lowering the national speed limit on high ways!

To that respect the Netherlands also welcomes the commitments made by President Rajapaksa during the “World Leaders Summit of COP26″. The Sri Lankan ambitions on renewable energy and the co-leadership of the “Global Energy Compact for No New Coal Power” are commendable.

The key question is, however, in both the Netherlands and Sri Lanka, and worldwide: how will we make sure that we stick to those goals and deliver?

Strong words and good intentions are not enough.

Now I will say something that might be a bit sensitive in Sri Lanka, as I notice civil society is not always valued enough. And calling someone ‘an NGO’ is mostly not regarded as a compliment in Sri Lanka. But I will say it any way: besides government working with business, we need civil society, including academia,  to make sure that we stick to our plans and that we reach our goals. We need the youth, the interest groups, environmentalists, researchers. Also when their input and opinions are not always supportive of government policies. Our environmental challenges do not only go beyond boundaries, they also go beyond politics.

Let me give you one example that raised a lot of attention in the Netherlands and other countries. Some environmental groups felt the Dutch government was not doing enough to safeguard the environment. In 2014 they initiated a court case against the government. This case established that the government has a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change. The Supreme Court ruled that climate change could have impacts on the rights to life and well-being of Netherlands’ citizens. Therefore the government was instructed by the Supreme Court to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a faster pace than anticipated.

Of course not everybody was happy with this outcome and it poses an extra challenge for the government, but we do not have a choice; we need to act. This first climate change case sets a precedent for future similar cases. This push from civil society, driven by environmental research, also shows the importance of making environmental governance more inclusive.

Dutch approach to environmental governance: inclusivity for systemic change

A national climate governance system can take on different shapes and should entail a variety of legal and non-legal elements. But it is clear that we see a trend to more stringent and cohesive legal instruments being put in place in many countries worldwide.

The Netherlands believes that including all actors into the development of legal instruments is required. Otherwise there is no long-term support for the instrument and it will not achieve the desired results. So national and local governments, the private sector, including the financial sector, civil society organizations, knowledge institutions and young people are all key partners in implementing the SDGs. And thus involving the different stakeholders and consensus building are core parts of environmental governance and transition to a sustainable future.

To say it concisely: only through partnerships, with all actors involved, we can Build Back Better.

For example, the Dutch SDG Charter is a growing multi-stakeholder platform with over 500 Dutch companies, NGOs, knowledge institutions and philanthropists. They have declared their intention to contribute to the SDGs in partnership and work on the SDGs in an integrated manner for all 17 goals.

In the Netherlands, responsibility for performing SDG actions, including those focusing on environmental and climate action, is assigned to all the ministries concerned: since 2019, the national assessment framework for new laws and policies has become ‘SDG-proof’, requiring law- and policymakers to assess the effects of their legislation on SDG progress. And SDG progress tracking is integrated into the regular policy cycles.

Our national statistics office (CBS) publishes regular reports on SDGs in the Netherlands. In 2016, it was the first national statistical office in the world to provide a statistical measurement on SDG indicators. In 2018, it introduced a new monitoring system — the Broad Welfare Monitoring System (Monitor Brede Welvaart) — to measure citizens’ prosperity using a broad set of indicators, including environmental impacts, rather than only GDP.

The Netherlands as your partner for environmental governance

So how does the Dutch approach towards environmental governance – inclusive policymaking towards the SDGs – relate to Sri Lanka? And to you, distinguished guests?

We strongly believe that this approach of inclusivity and consensus building is required internationally in environmental governance as well. So international cooperation is a cornerstone of our climate policy. Together we can strengthen alliances, educate communities and actively reach out to governments, businesses and organisations. Together we can build sustainable value chains, forge climate resilient investments deals and empower societies to protect our planet and achieve sustainable economic prosperity. This is what we aim to do worldwide, also with and in Sri Lanka: we stand ready to continue to share knowledge, expertise and solutions that can help take global climate action to a local level.

Let me mention 3 areas of cooperation:

Ensuring a sustainable supply of clean and renewable energy

Firstly: urgent and complex transitions are now needed from a fossil-based, energy-intensive economy to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society. To achieve that, the Netherlands is already increasingly harnessing the power of sun, wind and water to speed up the transition to renewable energy resources. Every actor in the energy supply chain contributes to the success. Our advanced energy sector offers extensive knowledge and experience in wind, biomass, hydrogen, and solar energy. I am convinced the Netherlands can support Sri Lanka with their transition to the 70% renewable energy commitments.

Accelerating the transition to sustainable food production / water management

Renewable energy is an area where we can start and then scale up our cooperation. In other environmental governance fields we already have long-standing cooperation that we are now making climate-smart and future proof. I am of course talking about agriculture and water management.

Just like Dutch farmers, Sri Lankan farmers already feel the effects of climate change. Dry areas are getting drier, wet areas are getting wetter. This requires to things: research and action

Firstly, we require research into climate change and adaptation. What is happening – literally – in the field? Independent scientific research is tremendously important. Research forms the basis of concerted action to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. Agricultural research can provide a common understanding, new methods of irrigation or create drought resistant varieties of crops. It can also increase productivity and profitability. This will not only benefit the farmers, but also consumers and - in general - food security in Sri Lanka. So since many years the Netherlands has provided for exchange of knowledge and expertise with Sri Lanka and we will continue to do so.

Secondly, we need action. We know that climate change is reducing agricultural yields and soil fertility. The Netherlands is involved in various partnerships with Sri Lankan organisations to fast-track sustainable food production and fine-tune methods to grow and produce food with less water, energy, raw materials and through the use of organic possibilities. We focus our partnerships on the horticulture, dairy and poultry sectors. To date we have trained around 250 trainers on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture. And we are currently in the process of training another 100 trainers on protected agriculture, again in collaboration with the Department. Last year, we trained 125 dairy stakeholders on sustainable dairy feed and waste management in collaboration with Sri Lanka Dairy Association.

In the coming years, I foresee the deepening of this agricultural cooperation. Dutch agricultural companies and knowledge institutes stand ready to work with Sri Lankan partners to make the transformation to climate smart agriculture, while feeding an increasing population. And those agricultural partners often also focus on water. Another key component in environmental governance…

I already mentioned our vulnerability, our Kingdom - consisting of a European delta country and Caribbean Small Island Developing States - is surrounded by rising sea levels on almost all sides. Water management and flood prevention is in our DNA – and I know it is also in yours.

So for many years, Dutch water experts have been working together with Sri Lankan experts to develop climate adaptive construction projects in coastal, port and river engineering and maintenance. Dutch and Sri Lankan experts are currently, for example, working on establishing a ground water monitoring network with 190 measuring locations in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Monaragala, Jaffna and Puttalam districts. And we are preparing a big government-to-government project in the north: the River for Jaffna project, providing drinking and irrigation water. 

Towards a 100% Circular Economy

Three weeks ago I went to Weligama with the family. My boys wanted to go surfing, but we never did. It was not the rain stopping us, but the issue might have been caused by the heavy rains. We went into the water knee deep and our legs were wrapped in pieces of plastic. I had never encountered it before, and it made me sad.

This brings me to the third and last opportunity, a circular economy.

The Netherlands both nationally and internationally works to transform our economy into a Circular Economy. By 2030 we aim for 50% less raw material consumption and by 2050 we aim to be a fully circular society. Achieving circularity means of course working with and adapting global supply chains, too. So we collaborate with global businesses, knowledge institutes and government authorities on a variety of topics like circular agro-food, water and waste management, textiles and innovative packaging. In Sri Lanka, we are supporting the apparel and textile sector with knowledge transfer platforms on circularity, supporting Sri Lanka’s journey and continued effort to be a preferred sourcing destination for ethical and conscious brands.


Let me conclude.

Our Dutch national environmental governance and climate ambitions are not just local: they are global. Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement requires all parties, including the Netherlands, to raise their ambitions. Beyond ambition, real action and implementation is needed.

The Netherlands is thus eager to worker together in an inclusive, consensus-driven way and provide knowledge, expertise and technology, ranging from clean energy and green technology to circular and climate-resilient products and solutions.

I congratulate the Central Environmental Authority on the 40th Anniversary and also the organizers of today’s event in braving through the COVID induced challenges, yet still bringing researchers, policy makers and citizen scientists together.

I will reiterate that we need to:

Co-create sustainable solutions to global challenges

Again I picture my boys, now in the Sri Lankan hill country, what an amazing sight. I shared a picture with a friend in the Netherlands and she wrote: it looks like paradise. Yes it does and let us - for the sake of our children, for the sake of our planet – give this paradise the attention and the governance it deserves.