The Netherlands sees climate action as a rare opportunity to work closely with China

Both countries have their work cut out to reach emissions-reduction goals, but China is already learning from Dutch expertise in offshore wind, writes Charlotte Nijhuis
<p>Illustration: <a href="">Michael Crampton</a> / China Dialogue</p>

Illustration: Michael Crampton / China Dialogue

With half of its territory below sea level, the Netherlands is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The country is a pioneer in offshore wind, which is often seen as an obvious contender for joint Dutch–Chinese projects to advance both climate protection and Dutch business interests. For its part, China seems keen to profit from Dutch expertise.

For many Dutch people, when they think about China in relation to environmental issues, the first thing that comes to mind is Chinese cityscapes shrouded in a thick haze of air pollution. “I think many people in the Netherlands view China as a polluter. In their head they have images of big cities with a lot of smog,” said Detlef van Vuuren, a researcher at the government’s Environmental Assessment Agency. But he points out that this view is one-sided. “From my perspective, China is both an innovator – they are currently the biggest investor in renewables – as well as a polluter, since they still heavily invest in coal technology as well.”

About this article

This is one in a series of articles co-published by Clean Energy Wire and China Dialogue that explores Chinese investment from the perspective of several European countries. You can find the full series here.

Earlier this year, China surprised many, including the Netherlands, with its pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. “The Netherlands welcomes the announcement of [President] Xi Jinping that China is tightening its climate ambitions, and looks forward to the further translation of these ambitions into concrete plans,” said Nicolette Stoel, spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Louise van Schaik, senior research fellow at international affairs think-tank Clingendael, said the announcement has opened new opportunities for cooperation between the two countries. She explained that the Netherlands looks critically at China on issues such as human rights, “but climate is seen as an exception”. “It’s almost a mantra: ‘at least the Chinese are doing well on climate!’ The question is: is it possible in international politics to work together on one topic and not others?”

This juggling act between cooperation on the one hand and protecting the Dutch economy and values on the other characterises the Dutch government’s China strategy published in 2018, which aptly includes “a new balance” in its title. Given China’s huge market, the Netherlands is eager to cooperate and trade, but it is also wary of China’s growing influence, and has concerns about security and human rights. This was made clear by Stef Blok, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, in a letter introducing the strategy: “The government wants to cooperate with China on the basis of shared interests, while keeping an eye on ideological differences.”

Whether this is possible is not a question the Netherlands can answer alone. As the European Union’s sixth largest economy, the country often prefers to defer to Brussels when it comes to big topics such as climate change and relations with China. This is simply because “the EU is a much bigger player”, explained van Schaik of Clingendael. The same is true for issues relating to the global energy transition. “We also don’t have that much to bring to the table when it comes to renewables, because we are ourselves lagging behind quite a bit,” said van Schaik.

Installing offshore wind turbines is our strong suit.
Arjen Schutten, head of the export association Holland Home of Wind Energy

In 2019, the Netherlands finalised its national climate agreement, which included the goal of reaching the targets set during the 2015 Paris Agreement. According to the document, the country’s aim is to reduce emissions by 49% by 2030 compared to 1990. But EU leaders have recently agreed to raise the bloc’s 2030 emission-reduction target to at least 55%, so the Netherlands will likely have to up its target too. But in 2019, emissions were only down 18% compared to 1990. “We have become a lot more ambitious since the [2019] climate agreement, but our story is peanuts in comparison to the German Energiewende [energy transition], for example”, said van Schaik.

The Netherlands may have a lot to catch up on when it comes to reducing emissions, but it also has leading technological knowledge and innovations to offer. In particular, offshore wind power is often cited as a prime sector for Chinese–Dutch cooperation. “The Netherlands is very good at the installation of offshore wind turbines, that is really our strong suit,” explained Arjen Schutten, head of the export association Holland Home of Wind Energy. “There are several big Dutch companies that install turbines or provide hardware for the installation, and the Dutch research institute TNO delivers a lot of knowledge about wind energy to China,” he said.

One recent example is a project in the South China Sea about 26 kilometres from the city of Yangjiang, where Dutch company SPT Offshore is laying the foundations for a 300 megawatt windfarm.

Schutten believes the Chinese are mostly interested in innovative solutions and acquiring as much knowledge as possible. In his experience, “the Dutch companies that are successful in China are the ones that are constantly innovating, so they are always one step ahead of the Chinese.” China will take all the knowledge they can from foreign companies, he said, so they can eventually do everything themselves. “The Chinese dream is developing a prosperous state that is no longer dependent on other countries.”

In January, the Netherlands will host the Climate Adaptation Summit 2021, where leaders from 23 countries, including China, will meet to discuss strategies for adapting to the effects of climate change, such as droughts, heatwaves and sea-level rise.

“The Netherlands hopes that China will participate at the highest level to strengthen global leadership on adaptation,” said Stoel of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The illustration used at the top of this article can be republished along with the text, but not independently of it. Credit information should be retained.