Wednesday 24 September 2014

Currently browsing 'Climate & Environment'

What should be the EU’s stance energy and climate change? This covers topics such as energy security, deforestation and CO2 emissions.

 

Climate Change Hunger: World Leaders Must Act

Posted by on 22/09/14

By Olivier De Schutter, Honorary Advisor to Oxfam International

Discussions on curbing greenhouse gas emissions always seem to proceed excruciatingly slowly, as climate change is forever being brushed aside as a far off concern for a distant future. They fail time and again because politicians of all stripes pay more attention to the short-term horizon of the next election than the world future generations will live in. Future generations – after all – cannot vote.

That was, until now, the conventional wisdom. It is now becoming increasingly obsolete. New reports show that climate disruptions are already affecting people today, leading to mass migration and threatening food security. Not tomorrow. Not in 2050. Today.

Next week, world leaders will meet for the first time in five years to discuss climate change at a special summit convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It is time they started to reflect this new reality.

Small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples the world over have been experiencing the ramifications of climate change inaction for some time now, as their livelihoods depend heavily on land, water and forests. What’s new is that the struggles they face are now becoming obvious to all.

New research commissioned by worldwide organisation Oxfam shows how in the five years since world leaders last met in Copenhagen, several major climate disruptions have threatened the right to food on a massive scale, causing ripples of social disruption beyond national borders.

The summer of 2010 was a clear example of this, when a Russian heat wave prompted an export ban on wheat that wreaked havoc on international markets. Price increases particularly affected Middle Eastern wheat-importing countries and contributed to massive social unrest, culminating in the Arab Spring. The following year, a severe drought in the Greater Horn of Africa led the number of people in the region in need of food assistance to double in a period of six months to 17.5 million. Those two events, combined with the mega floods in Pakistan in 2010 and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 forced around 25 million people from their homes.

The upcoming climate summit is an opportunity for world leaders to show that they understand both the science and the urgent need to act in order to reduce the risk of large-scale social disruptions in the years to come. One concrete step forward they can and should take is to replenish the UN-backed Green Climate Fund – designed to help poorer countries deal with the effects of climate change and curb their own carbon emissions. To send a clear signal that they are serious about taking action, developed countries who have done most to cause this crisis need to commit to at least US$15bn over the next three years.

Such a commitment would prepare the ground for all countries to agree on binding greenhouse gas emission cuts. China and the United States now appear willing to move in this direction even before an international agreement is reached. Europe will also have an opportunity to lead by example when deciding its 2030 climate and energy policy in October. If they agree to slash emissions by at least 55 per cent, reduce energy use by at least 40 per cent and source 45 per cent of the EU’s energy from sustainable renewable sources, they will strongly encourage people in all countries to demand more from their governments.

Despite this, emissions targets will achieve little if trade flows continue to increase and provide an easy escape route for countries to outsource pollution abroad. This ‘carbon leakage’ sabotages climate change negotiations by allowing governments to make toothless and benign pledges. Furthermore, in their Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade negotiations with the US, the EU may lift restrictions on exports of natural gas and oil, releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Unless the trade agenda is aligned with the climate change agenda we will continue to lie both to ourselves and the next generation.

The good news is that in the past, only a few visionary politicians ever talked about climate. Now, even the most short-sighted cannot ignore that society’s expectations are mounting. The public understands that to ignore climate change is to remain blind to the sufferings of entire populations and to accept the risk of social disruptions on a large scale. Democracy used to be seen as the problem – it is now our best hope that the political systems will finally respond.

Olivier De Schutter, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, is an Honorary Advisor to Oxfam International

How to unleash your coverage of the environment

Posted by on 22/09/14

Ekaterina Voynova, AEJ-Bulgaria

In the article you will find information on courses, journalist networks, grants and advice suitable for journalists and photographers, covering the environment.

If you work in environmental journalism you should be aware that it is almost as ungrateful a job as political journalism, and in Bulgaria they often overlap. In addition to knowing all dependencies, affiliation of interests and individuals, you should understand extremely specialized topics – from climate change to biodiversity to legislation for natural balance to scientific and technical discoveries and research. You are often marginalized – in very few newsrooms, especially in the current critical state of media, the environment is a priority issue, unless covered in relations to a human interest story. Or political scandal or another protest for another construction or legislative nonsense. The workload is a extensive, you cannot be an expert in everything, especially if you are just starting off as a journalist.

However, if you have entered this profession in the first place and you have chosen to deal exactly with “eco” journalism, you have stepped on (hopefully) a strong foundation of idealism, enthusiasm and passion. As in all other areas of this craft, it is very important to have a good network of specialists you can rely on for information, but this is not always enough.

Good work requires resources and knowledge. Therefore, I propose a non-exhaustive selection of courses, journalist networks and scholarships for journalists dealing with environment.

Courses

The journalism Institute Poynter offers a special course for journalists reporting on climate change. Covering Climate Change provides not only basic information on the topic, but also guidance about how to avoid inserting your personal opinion when preparing your report.

For the first time this year in Greece a summer school for eco journalism was organized. The training in Crete was conducted by several universities in Greece and Ireland and the European Journalism Centre (EJC). The Summer School is aimed at students and young journalists. There is currently no information about whether the training will be organized for the second time, but you can follow it on EJC’s webpage.

Environmental issues are complex and based on scientific arguments. The lack of understanding often leads to contradictions. The Online Learning Platform Coursera has several courses aimed at non-experts on climate change, sustainable development and energy efficiency:

Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations – course begins in late September 2014 and is an introduction to the main themes, patterns and predictions about climate change and the development of climate policies.

Climate change – an inter-disciplinary course which goes into the social, economic and political consequences of climate change. It is presented by five professors from the University of Melbourne. The course has already started, but you can join before October 13.

Introduction to Sustainability – the course covers a variety of topics, including energy and climate change, ecosystem degradation, agriculture and water management, as well as GMO and the “Green Revolution.” The course ends October 19.

Journalist networks

Journalists’ networks are extensive resources not only as databases with scholarships, training courses, but also because of the vast experience that colleagues from around the world share with each other.

The blog of the International Journalists’ Network has practical tips for working with most topics that concern a journalist working on environmental issues. I recommend the article by Andrea Arzaba for the extraction of minerals. The article is a summary of the book Anya Schiffrin “Covering Oil: A Reporter’s Guide to Energy and Development”, in which she advises journalists who face this issue how to approach the information and information gathering.

Another interesting network is Earth Journalism Network (EJN). It is aimed at eco journalists from developing countries, advancing their skills to adequately report on environmental issues. While not directly related to the topics that are traditionally covered by Bulgarian media, the network provides access to systematic environmental information worldwide.

Blue Earth is aimed at photojournalists and supports their projects for critical reporting of environmental and social issues. The organization is open to journalists from around the world and although not directly granting scholarships, it assists photographers with advice and opportunities to raise funds for realizing their documentaries.

Other useful networks are those of investigative journalists – the Global Investigative Journalist Network and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, since important environmental issues need serious investigation. Moreover, the networks publish opportunities for scholarships, while BIRN gives out grants exclusively to journalists from the Balkans.

Scholarships

The deadline is approaching for applications to the Fund for environmental journalism, which provides grants up to $3,500 for projects on underreported environmental issues. The Fund is a membership organization, but for the grant application it is not mandatory. Non-members pay an application fee of $40. Documents need to be submitted by November 15.

Pulitzer’s Persephone Miel Fellowship is granted to journalists, editors, photographers, radio and television producers. It covers the cost for reporting on systemic problems in the applicant’s country that are presented as a general hypothesis rather than sporadic reports from various places. Fellows will participate in a training in Washington, the costs of which are also covered by the program. The deadline for applications for 2015 will be announced in December 2014.

Fund for Investigative Journalism also supports projects and although the deadlines for 2015 has not been announced, the application process requires significant preparation. The grantee will receive financial support and mentors who will advise her during the project. Mentors are members of organizations Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Grants from the European Journalism Centre are awarded to journalists from nine European countries, and although Bulgaria is not among them, Bulgarian journalists can apply in partnership with journalists and media in one of eligible countries. Application deadlines for 2015 will be announced soon.

Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation’s award for excellent reporting on biodiversity has become a prestigious and meaningful assessment of the good work of journalists in the last eight years. It also comes with a check for 500 leva. Nominations for 2014 have expired, but the new ones will be announced soon.

Tips

From my modest experience as an environmental journalist, I want to share how important it is to create good relationships with environmental organizations. They are a constant source of information and topics, and luckily Bulgaria has very well-working conservation organizations that are open and willing to assist journalists. Moreover, they often organize journalist trips, which help overcome the lack of resources in most newsrooms for travelling around the country. The more actively you work with environmental organizations, the greater the chance to include you in their activities.

One of the main oversights of many journalists, including mine, is that after an event or trip, more often than not, we don’t check the details of the information we publish, such as the names and positions of people or projects mentioned. Sometimes the topics are very specific and the terminology itself is sufficient to confuse any non-specialist, so a phone call after the event can save you an embarrassment.

Environmental journalism enjoyed a beautiful boom at the time when I was doing it, but as it happened with many areas, it was seriously hit by the financial crisis in media. Not many media have specialized journalists, let alone units that deal with these topics. Work together with the “competition” instead of against it. Information exchanges and collegiality among the journalists in this area is a well-established practice and if you are just getting into journalism, you will be surprised by this phenomenon. Resources are never enough, so any help is valuable.

I am biased, but environmental journalism is perhaps the most interesting and rich area of journalism. Here you can unleash your powers like nowhere else and like nowhere else you will learn something new and important for each topic on which you work.

Climate action will help the economy, report says

Posted by on 11/09/14

By Jason Anderson, Head of EU Climate and Energy Policy, WWF European Policy Office

A Cambridge Econometrics report released yesterday responds to the simple question: what would the economic implications be of meeting the UK’s carbon reduction goals to 2025 (the ‘fourth carbon budget’), compared to a scenario where they slow down their mitigation efforts?

The answer, of course, is not so simple to come up with, which is why the modellers’ expertise was necessary. The implications of cutting carbon are broad – more investment in low-carbon infrastructure and industry, increases in the associated employment, a faster shift from fossil to renewable energy, lower health costs due to reduced air pollution, and so on.

The net result is a major benefit to the economy, with household income rising £565 per year by 2030, heathcare costs down as much as £288m per year, a £5.7bn increase in government revenue, a 1.9% rise in production in energy-intensive sectors and a cut of £8.5bn in oil and gas import bills.

The biggest issues to contend with are, first, ensuring that energy efficiency measures are implemented even among the less well-off in society so that their fuel bills fall even as unit costs rise. This implies more robust programmes around fuel poverty. Secondly, a small number of energy intensive industries will similarly need to see enhanced investment in low-carbon technologies during a period in which they may need to be insulated from the full costs of transition, an approach already being undertaken through EU policy, though in a manner that requires considerable improvement.

As negotiators work behind the scenes to prepare for a European Council meeting later in October that will likely define the outlines of EU climate and energy policy through to 2030, this report adds to the stack of economic studies demonstrating the benefit of climate action and associated changes to industry and energy. At this point it’s clear that any failure or reluctance to reap the benefits of a low-carbon transition shows a singular inability to take the initiative needed to navigate change successfully.

 

Merging energy and climate change services under one Commissioner is an overdue change

Posted by on 10/09/14

The division of Commission services into one dealing with energy policy and another one with climate change policy has always been an artificial one: to influence climate change policy makers have to rely on energy policy.

It is therefore positive to recombine the two sides of the coin under a single command and put an end to internal disputes and overlapping created during the past 10 years.

European energy policy must serve foremost the interest of European citizens with energy security and sustainability of supply being the overwhelming targets.

But in a global and long-term perspective, European energy policy must also take climate developments into account. That is why it makes sense to aim at abolishing C02 emissions by the middle of century, which implies phasing out fossil energies, enhancing energy efficiency and switching to renewable energies and completing the network of long-distance power transmission and low-cost power storage .

A single command structure should therefore make the EU more effective. It will become operational just in time for the two main issues the EU will be confronted with very shortly: reducing the dependency on Russia as the single most important supplier of energy and contributing to a successful outcome of the climate conference in Paris in late 2015.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 10/9/2014

UK Conservatives shouldn’t abandon the green agenda

Posted by on 09/09/14

Whitehouse Consultancy Director Carl Thomson argues that the UK Conservative Party should continue to support investment in renewable energy in an article for the Huffington Post.

To read Carl’s article, please click here.

The Whitehouse Consultancy is one of Europe’s public affairs and communications agencies.

Something rotten in Denmark? Why road transport in the ETS is a bad idea

Posted by on 04/09/14

By Jason Anderson, Head of EU Climate and Energy Policy, WWF European Policy Office

A couple of years ago I went to an event at which gas enthusiast Dieter Helm browbeat climate DG Jos Delbeke about the insufficiencies of the current EU Emissions Trading System (in typical economist-speak the answer according to Helm is, assuming the political will to pass an adequate carbon tax, we’d have the money we need for innovation). Delbeke invited Helm to walk a mile in his shoes and see how much political will he could assume then. They agreed to disagree on the ETS, but happily converged in their common praise for the EU’s approach to vehicle efficiency standards, which are steadily driving down CO2emissions from cars.

So here’s an idea: mess up the one policy everyone agrees is effective, and put a greater burden on the one policy everyone agrees isn’t working properly. By putting road transport into the EU ETS, for example. That’s the position taken by the car industry and some countries, notably Denmark, which is showing themselves to be uncharacteristically short-sighted and self-interested on this point. The idea has crept its way into the Council’s 2030 negotiations as an option for national opt-in, according to the document leaked this Monday,

Fortunately, today Transport and Environment has released a timely and well-argued paper with the self-explanatory title ‘Why putting road transport in the ETS is a bad idea.’ Three main arguments follow: the ETS won’t deliver carbon savings in transport, inclusion of transport will damage the ETS and increase costs, and inclusion in the ETS jeopardises more effective policies.

WWF took a similar position in 2007 prior to the last major ETS review, which resulted in primarily sensible reforms, but without preventing the twin causes of the ETS’ current woes: insufficiently stringent allocations, and too-generous access to offsets for compliance. The basics, in other words. Adding road transport to the ETS is a bad idea generally, but positively reckless while simultaneously failing to tackle the ETS’ main problems head-on.

 

 

L’éolien soulagé : les vents contraires épargnent le ministère de l’Écologie

Posted by on 01/09/14

Après le grand chambardement ministériel, les professionnels de l’énergie peuvent souffler. Ségolène Royal, dont l’omniprésence a été particulièrement appréciée depuis son entrée en fonction par les professionnels de l’énergie, reste ministre de l’Écologie. Mais ils ne devraient pas être les seuls à se réjouir. De celle qui porte la loi sur la transition énergétique dépend aussi l’avenir économique du pays, le secteur des énergies renouvelables étant susceptible de créer des emplois par centaine de milliers.

« Nous sommes satisfaits du projet actuel et rassurés que Ségolène Royal continue à le porter » a fait savoir, visiblement soulagé, Frédéric Lanoë, Président de France Energie Éolienne (FEE), syndicat professionnel de l’éolien. Le syndicat des énergies renouvelables (SER) n’est pas moins enthousiaste. Ainsi, « le calendrier parlementaire, notamment celui de la loi de transition énergétique, et les grandes orientations qui doivent guider l’avenir des énergies renouvelables devraient être confirmés et l’action en leur faveur poursuivie » a fait savoir le SER.

France Énergie éolienne a également rappelé « la nécessité de faire de la transition énergétique et de la croissance verte deux priorités du nouveau gouvernement », et en a profité pour renouveler sa proposition de pacte industriel pour favoriser l’emploi. L’éolien constitue en effet une voie de réindustrialisation encore sous-exploitée et toutes les parties prenantes de la dynamique énergétique, les industriels et le Gouvernement ont intérêt à orienter ensemble leurs efforts vers la recherche, l’innovation, l’investissement et l’emploi.

L’éolien et les énergies renouvelables : un vivier d’emploi

Et pour cause, le secteur énergétique est le 3e secteur industriel français en termes d’emplois directs après l’automobile et l’aéronautique. Face aux derniers chiffres du chômage tombés le 27 août, il devient urgent de passer de l’intention à l’action. Après huit mois de hausse consécutifs, les chiffres dévoilés par Pôle emploi continuent de surprendre : si la hausse était de 0,3 % en juin, elle est de 0,8 % en juillet 2014.

Rien qu’EDF emploie 100 000 salariés en France et aura in fine recruté 6000 personnes en France fin 2014. Outre la production et l’ingénierie, le recrutement concerne aussi les nouveaux métiers liés aux énergies renouvelables, sachant que l’électricien est premier Européen des ENR et que les énergies renouvelables font partie intégrante de sa stratégie de développement. À titre d’exemple, en France, les 5 unités de production hydraulique et les 2 unités d’ingénierie emploient 4700 collaboratrices et collaborateurs qui assurent la gestion de 439 centrales hydrauliques.

La transition énergétique peut compter sur EDF a fait comprendre Henri Proglio

L’entreprise a déjà fait part de son soutien à la transition énergétique par la voix de son PDG. Si Henri Proglio n’a pas explicitement commenté le remaniement ministériel, il a en revanche salué le texte au moment de sa présentation en Conseil des ministres, jugeant dans une déclaration écrite à l’AFP qu’il était « équilibré » puisqu’il « n’oppose pas les énergies, mais souligne leur complémentarité ». Il continuera de le faire s’il est réélu à la tête de l’entreprise, son mandat arrivant à son terme en novembre 2014.

Dans les faits, EDF continue de développer la filière éolienne (terrestre et en mer), en France comme à l’international. Jeudi 28 août, elle a d’ailleurs officiellement annoncé la mise en service de trois parcs éoliens d’une puissance totale de 34,7 mégawatts dans la région Languedoc Roussillon. À l’international, cette filière représente déjà 87 % de son activité.

Une mobilisation générale pour des centaines de milliers d’emplois supplémentaires

Ce n’est pas uniquement à l’échelle d’EDF que la mutation doit s’engager. La transition énergétique exige de la part des particuliers et des entreprises le changement de nos modes de consommation vers davantage de sobriété et d’efficacité. Autrement dit, cela ne va pas sans le développement des énergies décarbonées que sont les énergies renouvelables et dont la France dispose en abondance. Cela ne va pas non plus sans la rénovation des bâtiments, la production de matériaux ou encore l’intelligence des réseaux. Autant de chantiers qui nécessitent de la main-d’œuvre.

Une étude du CirED-Cnrs1 analysant le contenu du scénario NégaWatt en emplois directs et indirects a estimé précisément pour chaque secteur les créations et les suppressions d’emplois. Ses conclusions sont plus qu’encourageantes étant donné que d’ici à 2030 la transition telle qu’elle est proposée est susceptible de produire 632 000 emplois de plus que si la France persévérait dans sa politique énergétique actuelle. Les emplois créés dans la production, le transport et la distribution d’énergie seront plus nombreux que les emplois détruits.

Mieux encore, une autre étude réalisée par l’OFCE (Office Français des Conjonctures Économiques) et l’ADEME, bien que basant ses calculs sur une méthodologie différente, aboutit à une estimation confirmant la première. Elle conclut en effet à 745 000 emplois en 2050 avec le scénario négaWatt, et même à 825 000 avec le scénario « média » de l’ADEME.

Outre la baisse du chômage, cette étude anticipe une forte réduction de la dette publique et une balance commerciale sortant du rouge avant 2050. En outre, les ménages verraient considérablement réduire leur facture énergétique et pourraient profiter d’un revenu brut disponible supérieur. Tout ceci donne plutôt envie d’accélérer le mouvement, à l’échelle individuelle et collective.

Zingy Zeeland

Posted by on 26/07/14

In the stars

All paths led to Zeeland that weekend. There seemed to be no way around it.

First of all, I had to leave my flat for that weekend. My friend and landlord was hosting other people there for a few days and asked me to spend the time elsewhere. Second, my parents’ friends invited me for lunch and coffee to Zeeland, in the Netherlands, to their summer house on the island of Walcheren to be precise, and that’s how I decided on my destination. Third, the universe seemed to like the idea of Walcheren and conspired to find me a great host there, and that with just a few clicks on my favourite two websites, Couchsurfing.org and WarmShowers.org.

And there’s more. Fourth, it turned out my friend Irina had been on Walcheren just the week before, in Middelburg that is, and left her coat at the train station, and tasked me to pick it up; so I even had a mission. And last but not least, well, there was Susan Miller, the online horoscope lady, who seemed to have talked to my landlord, my parents’ friends, my host-to-be, and my friend Irina, and concluded that I should take a trip to a not too far away place around that same date, Thursday 12 June 2014, even though  Ascension and Pentecoste were behind us, and the timing thus not that obvious.

So, a long weekend was clearly in the stars for me, and well, the location, Zeeland, and Walcheren within Zeeland, a given as well. There was no other one.

And then a memory came back, of something both distant as from another life, and close as it had happened just last year. Or at least, I think it had, if I didn’t only dream it. At times indeed it seemed more like a dream, yet I had photos to prove it really happened. Not many admittedly as my camera had broken down back then, but enough to see that yes, apparently, according to those photos, I had already been there. To Zeeland. To Walcheren. To the towns of Vlissingen and Middelburg. Or somewhere around there. With someone who was no longer around and who therefore couldn’t confirm any of these claims.

Those memories were very vague; at the time I had just sat in a car, in a haze, and let someone drive me around, without ever consulting the map, barely knowing where we were. And indeed, I actually didn’t. Names of towns, villages must have gone by back then, but they didn’t stick; I remembered none. I remembered a few scenes instead, the beach, the place where we bought kibbeling (golden nuggets of fried codfish) for the first time and then sat down among the dunes, the place where we bought kibbeling for the second time, and then rushed off with the car, the place where we had uitsmijter (eggs dish served for breakfast) and watched the cyclists. As if from distant childhood. And I preferred to not think of them now. Pretend I had never been there. Hoping not to recognize any of the places before me, not to be reminded of that distant and yet so very recent and raw moment in my personal history.

And then it was time. Friday morning. I caught the 7:21 train from Brussels to Knokke and arrived at “my” bike rental place just two hours later. Boulevard Bikes, on Knokke’s coastline, proved to be a lucky choice as always. Olivier, the guy in charge, rented me the coolest Dutch-style Gazelle bike ever, gave me a 30% discount, equipped me with one (free) bikebag, two (free) maps of Zeeland, and lots of (free and heartfelt) tips and tricks on where to go. And by 9:45 I was on my way, feeling on top of the world.

Finisterrae

It was an easy ride from Knokke to Cadzand, the first little town in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, which this part of Zeeland is called, right across from the Belgian border. A quick stop at the kibbeling shop, and I was all set for a heavenly picnic on the dunes. When I unpacked my kibbeling (and I had vowed to eat as much kibbeling and Hollandse Nieuwe as humanly possibly on this trip), somewhere between Cadzand and Bad Nieuwsfliet, I noticed that my phone had stopped working. And that I wouldn’t be able to get it working again for the next three days until I’d get to a phone shop in Belgium on Monday morning.  Apparently, the pressure of my backpack and the rhytm of my cycling had caused it to „enter“ a wrong pincode four times in a row, prompting it to now ask me for my puk – and I had no idea. Laugh or cry.

Lucky I remembered my address for the night. Oranjestraat 10. In Vlissingen. The Netherlands. And that would have to do. This would be a truly technology-free trip then. Couldn’t remember when I last spent three full days without my phone. A real time-out, almost a Vipasana meditation with no contact with anyone from „my normal life“. Somehow, that made me all the more curious of what was coming. Somehow, as long as we have our phones, we feel somehow „safe“ and able to connect with our „own people“ in case the ones we’re exposed to on this journey turn out to be idiots. But ok, I was going to have to do without that then.

Zeeuws Vlaanderen was as lovely as ever. I had been there before, three years ago, with my friend Joey, doing the same tour, also by bike from Knokke, past Cadzand and Bad Nieuwsfliet, all the way to a small town called Breskens. Back then, Breskens had seemed like a far-away place to us, and we were happy to call it a day there and cycle back. But I still remember the sense of awe I felt at having gotten that far, at having arrived at the end of something, where the land ends, and where the Schelde opens out into the open sea. The Schelde is the river, which separates Zeeuws Vlaanderen from the rest of Zeeland, and therefore from the rest of Holland. That pier in Breskens is where big ships would have passed on their way from Antwerp to far-away countries and continents during the Dutch Golden Ages in the 17th century.

The pier was desolate back then, and I had a distinct sense of finisterrae, of this is where the world ends, and across from it where something new starts. And I spent three full years kindling the idea of going back there, to Breskens, and further, to the other side, but then never got around to it. In the meantime, I travelled to Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon and elsewhere, but that pier in Breskens never lost its appeal to me; it was like a memory from the past, or a call from the future, or a part of myself waiting to be explored.

Now that I was finally back on that bikepath, I was somewhat impatient to make it beyond that pier this time. I swiftly made it to Breskens, didn’t see the pier, didn’t even look for it, but found the ferry, immediately, and before I knew it, I was on it – and in Vlissingen less than half an hour later. On the other side. Almost too easy. The ferry was more like a metro; it cost four euro and went back and forth 2-3 times an hour. I felt like a Canadian soldier who had been here in 1944, and now came back, 70 years later, well into old age, and in supreme awe of how easy the crossing of that stretch of water proved to be this time around. I was in Vlissingen at 13:00, about four hours earlier than expected; I had somehow thought it was going to be a full-day trip.

Déja vu

Vlissingen was lovely. A medieval town, an orange town, orange flags and posters and t-shirts everywhere. A sunny and light-hearted town, with a blue sky, bridges, cobblestones, happy people, ice cream. Awaiting the football world championship Holland-Spain match scheduled for that night. „Vannacht moet het gebeuren“, the newspapers wrote that day. Louis van Gaal, the Dutch team’s coach, would „have to prove himself that night, and make it a historical night“. A lot of pressure, I thought. How could anyone stand straight in the face of that. And then the game was against Spain, the world champions. An unlikely bet. But hey, one never knows. And people were happy anyway. I dipped into a few shops, one sporting bright orange cyclists’ t-shirts, for ladies, the kind I would wear. The salesgirl promptly complimented me on my choice, „t’is leuk“, and we both came out with the same two words at the same instant, with one voice, „voor vanavond!!“, and she burst into laughter. As in: „You’ll/I’ll at least look nice when we loose“. And I would have bought it hadn’t it been for my budget.

I went about visiting Vlissingen with some sort of greed, some sense of this is where I want to be and this is what I want to see, and to absorb and integrate into my life. I first cycled all around it in one larger circle, and then, much like a predating bird, cut through into the centre of it, and then circled around that centre, twice, just to know what I already knew, which was – that I had been there before. And extensively. I knew every streetcorner. We must have spent a lot of time there. The greeting card shop. The 1 euro shop. The icecream shop. My stomach churned somehow, and I listened, and hesitated, but all seemed under control. No crashing yet. Crashing of my soul. I parked my bike. It was sunny, it was beautiful. I was on a high after the cycling, protected by a warm and floaty feeling. And the memory didn’t assault me, which was a bit of a miracle; last time I had gotten close to a location with that same legacy I spent the next two days crying. Here I was, taking it on squarely. I even had the nerve to get an ice cream at that same icecream place. And even remembered the flavours. Zeelandse bolus, the Zeeland specialty yeast cake with cinnamon, and stroopwafels. I had been in two minds between those two last year as well, and then chose stroopwafels. And found myself doing the same thing over again.

Feeling fragile, and yet reasonably in control, I decided to spend the last half hour before my appointment with my hosts by the beach, which was at about eight minutes cycling from the city centre. And which turned out to be our beach from last year. The one we dug a hole in, and laid ourselves down in for that last hour together. Back then, in another era. And the kibbelingstand by that beach was our kibbelingstand, the one on my photo, the one from my memory. It was spooky. And here I was, feeling, listening. Would I escape, would I cry, would I shake or would I stay? I longed for a moment on the beach, in the sand, by the water. And I had time to kill. And there was no other beach around. And again, with a lot of nerve, and maybe a touch of masochism, I locked my bike and walked straight down to the centre of that beach. Sat down among pink-bikinied teenagers and screaming blond children and oversized seagulls circling right above us. Unpacked my kibbeling. Yes, I would eat lots of kibbeling on this trip. If only I could swallow it. I couldn’t swallow it. I got up to do a cartwheel instead. And another one. And another one. The beach was mine. The sky was the limit; the water my element; the horizon a promise of better times to come. I would exorcise the ghosts from the past. Cleanse the place. I felt alive. And deliciously dizzy. And when I noticed that the seagulls were eating my kibbeling, picking through the paperbag, and flying off with big chunks of fish in their beaks, I didn’t even care.

Orange

Time to go find my hosts. Easy. Oranjestrat. „Bij de Oranjemolen“ as everyone was able to tell me. Sounded like the right address for this (historical and all-orange) night. Relieved and happy when I got there. And delighted with Froukje and Paul when I met them. Turns out they are hosting almost every day. Via Couchsurfing, Warm Showers or Vrienden van de Fiets. Couchsurfers and warm shower mensen stay for free; vrienden van de fiets would normally pay 19 euro per night, but Froukje in her overwhelming generosity often lets them stay for free, too. Just to give something back to the world, hear a new story, meet a new person, give or get some inspiration. Or at least that’s my take on why they’re doing this. Clearly not for the money as they’re not making any, and it’s not like they „need“ extra company either;  they’re surrounded by good friends and neighbours, a few of which I actually met.

Froukje, Paul and their neighbours Sebastian and Frank have created what they call a cooking club. Several times per week, and often joined by other neighbours, they take turns in cooking dinner, and then eat together around a large table in the garden. On that Friday night, the cook had been Sebastian, late forties, who treated us to artichokes for starters, yummy veg and chicken as a main, and a lucky dip into a big round bowl of strawberries for dessert. Served with whipped cream, coffee and Belgian chocolates. We ate like kings. And we kletsen nooit over geld. Wow. Dutch community and garden life at its best. Gezellig. And belying the cliché of the Dutch being stingy. No zuinig and gierig for that little garden community. And so nice and easy after a long day’s work. Ik schuif maar gewoon aan. Neighbours from heaven. Like from some Italian movie. Extended family dinners on a summery terrace, all generations, and lots of straight talking. And the Dutch are straight talkers, too, but I’ve always known that.

And then there was the game. The game. The historical moment. To be watched in one of the pubs in the centre. We were late. Spain was leading 1-0. No special emotions to be detected anywhere. The Dutch are a sturdy breed. And Spain was world champion after all. And then the miracle happened. Vannacht moet het gebeuren. Just before the break, Holland scored a goal. Tonight’s gonna be a good night. At once, all those people under all that orange facepaint, hairspray and clothing were coming alive. Jumping onto tables, high fives, hugging, whooping, we are the champions. And then it was break time. A well deserved one. Time to catch our breath. And watch the hilarious ads featuring a curvy Brazilian sexbomb on Copacabana beach speaking Dutch and mocking Dutch carnaval. Oranje. Super Dutch. Hup Holland Hup. Parodies of various movies. Voor Oranje begint de strijd nu, met power, respect, teamspirit. Want winnaars verliezen nooit. LOL. I whipped out my camera, people posed for my video, the tide was high.

Then we moved on to bar number two. Around the corner of Bellamy park, still in the centre of town. There the next miracle happened. Holland scored again. And then again. And then things got out of control. Holland scored four more times in that second halftime; five times altogether. After the 3rd Dutch goal, the Spanish gave up. Later that week, a Spanish friend told me that earlier that day, the Spanish state had sold off a major public services company, hoping the people wouldn’t notice in their narcotic football craze. And just days before, the King had abdicated causing the people to demand the abolition of the monarchy. „The country is falling apart; football was all we had left“ he diagnosed.  But one nation’s misery is another nation’s fortune, or at least in football. Later that night, the Dutch commentator told everyone that „there could have been a 6th and a 7th and an 8th goal“. During the game, people behind me were all shouting: „Tien! Tien! Tien! Tien!“ Getting greedy, loosing every sense of proportion. This was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. You could almost smell the testosterone. „Je had jouw oranje t-shirtje kunnen aandoen“ some half drunk guy lurched when I walked past. Me, who was clearly Dutch with that orange hair of mine, and orange soul beaming through my darkblue sweater. And me who obviously had a whole selection of orange t-shirts and skimpy dresses in my all too Dutch wardrobe in my all Dutch home town somewhere. Maybe I should have bought that t-shirt after all.

Still delightfully immersed in an orange cloud of Dutchness, I woke up to an all orange breakfast the next morning. Boterammen, pindakaas, hagelslag, appelstroop and (orange) plakjes kaas. Only the musjes and vla missing to complete the cliché. And there was coffee. When I was younger, I used to have a postcard featuring two deliciously inviting coffee cups before a starchy white lace curtain saying „De koffie is klaar“, which I kept on my desk for years. The Dutch have a thing for koffie. They even drink it at night, with lots of foamy warm milk, in big comforting mugs, reassuring, lulling you to sleep. Froukje, Paul and I ended up having koffie and breakfast in the garden, with the neighbours greeting us as they walked by. Gezellig.

Headwind

I eventually braved the road, with a huge delay and only a vague idea of where I wanted to go. Domburg, then Veere I thought, then somehow on to Middelburg. Bike-guru Olivier had said the best ice cream was in Veere.  My parents’ friends had cancelled last minute, but I had made a coffee appointment with Anna, a couchsurfer in Middelburg. Plus there was Irina’s jacket; yes, I had a mission. And off I went. Following the coastline, I cycled northwestwards, and thought I’d hit Domburg within an hour. But things turned out different. What would have normally taken one hour, took me four. The weather had changed, it was much colder than the day before, a stiff little wind was blowing, and I soon found myself pulling out a sweater, and then another one, and tugging my scarf tightly around my face and hitting the pedal without much pleasure. I soldiered on just for the sake of it. I had to get there somehow, there, where, anywhere. The water on my left, the inland on my right, I navigated my way through dunes and dykes and ditches, and past other cyclists, but just didn’t enjoy it that much. Strain and headwind.

Until the way suddenly opened (and yes, there was a distinct sense of opening) when the road led straight into the adorable little village of Zoutelande. Which really lifted my spirits. And I can’t even say why.  The place in itself was not even that special, objectively-speaking, but I was just plain delighted. In a physical sort of way. Almost shivering with it. With a sense of having gotten away with it, or tricked the system. As if I hadn’t been supposed to come here, or come back here, or at least not alive, and yet I had. I had never been there before, or at least not to my knowledge, so maybe it was relief at not recognizing anything, and being allowed to explore something perfectly new. Or, on the contrary, it might have struck a chord with something from the past, long lost and found, broken and mended. The place was so jolly and blue and sunny again, with scores of beachtoys and bikinis dangling in the breeze outside colourful little shops, and people sitting on terraces in the sun and eating „opa’s appeltaart met slagroom and drinking more of that reassuring Dutch coffee. (In Holland, applecake’s being baked by the granddads nowadays; the grandmas are busy writing novels and travelling the world). A summer’s day, despite the changing weather, families, the north sea, my childhood maybe.

Then more cycling again. The weather changing again. Chilly. More headwind. Onwards to Westkapelle. Where the Allies landed in WWII. On 1 November 1944, with heavy amphibious warfare on even heavier ships. The full monty. Mainly Brits and Canadians. It must have been even colder and windier back then.

Turns out Walcheren played an important role in WWII. Little history lesson: On 6 June 1944, the Allies had landed in Normandy, also known as D-Day. Three months later, on 4 September, they captured the port of Antwerp, mainly to shorten the supply lines to their soldiers advancing towards Germany. But when Antwerp was captured, they couldn’t use it, as right above Antwerp there was Walcheren, and Walcheren was still controlled by the Germans. Now, Walcheren was difficult. The Germans were heavily fortified there, and the Allies first tried driving the Germans out of Holland from the other side. But after weeks and weeks of not making much progress, British Field Marshall Montgomery had enough and gave the opening of the Schelde “complete priority without any qualification whatsoever”. All eyes were on Walcheren again.

Next thing you knew was that between 2 and 11 October, a Canadian Lt-General called Guy Simons ordered the Walcheren population by radio and pamphlets to evacuate potential strategic objects, and on 3rd, 7th and 11th October respectively, the RAF Bomber Command dropped between 8000 and 9000 tons of bombs onto the dykes at Westkapelle, near Vlissingen and at Veere. Walcheren was instantly flooded and transformed into a massive lagoon rimmed by broken dykes. A few weeks later, on 1 November, at 05:45 in the morning, Allied commandos landed at Oranjemolen in Vlissingen, right behind Froukje and Paul’s house.

Casualties-wise, „the campaign to free up Antwerp cost the Allies dear”, says the History Learning Site. “They had lost 703 officers and 12,170 other ranks killed, wounded or lost in action, presumed dead. Over half of these casualties were Canadian men.” A few survivors of the campaign still gather, every year (yes, every year, says Paul, and one of them is in a wheelchair) on 1 November to commemorate them (and yes, right behind their house). In Westkapelle, the 3 October bombings are still known as ‘t Bombardement and remembered as the day when 180 Westkapelle residents were killed and the village all but wiped off the face of the earth by the bombs and the incoming sea.

Some footage of the flooded island on youtube -the wonders of youtube- at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FAFWYM9yvQ and voor de nederlandstaaligen among us, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fg7zGo9Wy08. Even one year after the bombings, three quarters of Walcheren were still under water and the devastation breathtaking.

Luctor et Emergo

Talking about floodings, turns out that Walcheren came under water again in January 1953, and so did other parts of Holland, when a heavy storm caused the dykes to break, killing 1,835 people and forcing the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned that day, 37,300 buildings were damaged, and an extra 10,000 completely destroyed. The Dutch coined a special word for the disaster – watersnoodramp- and the Dutch government set out to build an ambitious flood defence system, the so-called Delta Works, designed to protect the estuaries of the Rhine, Maas and Schelde rivers. Zeeland was particularly affected by the disaster. No wonder the province’s slogan (coined long before 1953) reads Luctor et Emergo – I struggle and I emerge – a reference to the interminable battle the province has been waging with the sea if not since time immemorial then at least for many decades. Indeed, the inhabitants of Zeeland’s small towns and villages have spent much of their history either at sea or keeping the sea away from hearth and home.

The Allied landing has left a strong mark on the island. No wonder the street next to Paul and Froukje’s street in Vlissingen is called Landingsstraat. And no wonder the tiny village of Westkapelle has its own war museum, and a monument on the dyke above the museum. When I reached that monument on the dyke that day, and admired the ironcast tank on top of a block of granite, I noticed a small figure all dressed up in a WWII uniform complete with helmet and rifle, climbing all over it. I blinked. An apparition? A wax figure? A guard? An actor enacting a scene from back then? Weird. And some others seemed confused by it, too. I looked again and discerned a little boy of maybe 8 years of age, wearing an original Allied WWII uniform, with a small Dutch flag sown onto its front. A little Dutch boy playing at war. I couldn’t help myself and walked up to the kid and asked in a playful tone where on earth he got that uniform from. In Dutch. No answer. In German. Maybe he was German and got it from the nearby museum as part of some fun historical reenactment exercise. No answer. Spreekt je Nederlands? Ja. Ok. Waar heb je die vandaan? No answer. Is die van jou? Ja. Ok. Of van je papa? Nee. Right. Ok, this is his own uniform and he’s simply – playing at war. Not sure I’m getting these parents. I was raised on „Nie wieder Krieg“ and my brother, born in 1969, kept from playing with anything even resembling a soldier. Even „action man“ was considered too violent. But maybe I’m missing something. After all, I am the granddaughter of those staunch and humourless people who dug trenches on Scheveningen beach, and who stole this little boy’s greatgrandparents bicycles. Hm.

Vlissingen has been of interest to many foreign powers throughout history. Significantly, the 44,500 people town is, despite its relatively small size, one of the few Dutch towns with names in two other languages. The French call it Flessengue and the English Flushing. Long before the Germans in the 1940s, Napoleon had laid hands on Vlissingen in far-away 1795, incorporated it into his French republic, and invested in it by building some heavy fortifications. To his mind, Vlissingen was going to play an important role in his plans to conquer England. Not surprisingly, the English didn’t like the idea and, in 1809, subjected the town to heavy bombardments.

Another 200 years before that, when the Netherlands were still ruled by the Spanish, and Willem van Oranje was slowly gaining ground in his struggle against the Spanish oppressors,  Vlissingen became famous for being one of the two first Dutch towns, which managed to free itself from Spanish rule. Oranje’s rebels rebels first captured the town of Brielle, on 1 April 1572, and then Vlissingen on 6 April 1572. These events marked a turning point in the 80 Years War between the Netherlands and Spain, and the event is still remembered today, with a rhyme for April Fool’s Day: “Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril, en op april zes verloor Alva zijn fles,” basically meaning that “on 1 April the (Spanish) count Alba lost his glasses (bril meaning glasses and referring to the town of Brielle), and on 6 April he lost his bottle (fles meaning bottle and referring to Vlissingen).” Ok, so Vlissingen has a tradition of freedom-fighting and insurgency.  Or at least it did 400 years ago.
Anyhow, I had neither glasses nor bottles to lose that day, mainly as I hadn’t brought any in the first place, but I missed them all the same as I felt my eyes water from the wind (no glasses) and my mouth go dry from a lack of water (no bottle). And I longed to arrive somewhere now.

Treats and tailwind

Next stop Domburg. So close and yet so far. The headwind didn’t help and neither did the dark clouds which were suddenly forming everywhere. Eventually I did get there, but when I looked at a clock it was 3pm. The 20km from Vlissingen to Domburg had taken me four hours. Granted, I had made a few stops, but still. Bit daunting when I thought of what was yet to come.  If things continued this way, I wouldn’t get back to Vlissingen before midnight. But first things first. I deserved a break. Time for lunch, and coffee, and cake, and a stroll. I parked my bike with a few other bikes. In Zeeland you don’t need to lock your bike to anything; just lock it „to itself“ and no one will touch it. „It’s too heavy to carry around“, says Froukje. Plus, where would they take it to? We’re on an island. And indeed, none of the hundreds of bikes I saw those three days were attached to anything. So very different from Brussels where according to some statistics they steal 75 bikes a night, and even the crappiest about-to-fall-apart bike requires a 60 euro U-lock to protect it from the bike-mob. So Zeeland really felt like a fairy tale world, or a long-lost timezone, where people and bikes still happily coexist and no one fears anyone else and everyone is getting enough.

And I certainly got enough in Domburg, too. „The beach is the main event in Domburg“ writes the Lonely Planet, but I didn’t even see the beach; it was just too chilly. That day, the main events in Domburg were clearly the Hollandse Nieuwe, the kibbeling, and the ice cream. Domburg is a quintessentially little Dutch village with one-storey houses, lace curtains and lacquered blue front doors, which has basically been transformed into an open-air tourist resort, but all that without having lost its soul. You still feel the sweetness of it. There’s a bakery, and two fish shops – one on each side of the village – and a whole array of charming little cafes and bistros in between. But the fish shops are clearly the most popular. Everyone happily munching their kibbeling. To the sound of Zeeuwse folklore music brought to us by a group of men in their 60s, all dressed up in the Zeeuwse traditional costume, standing there and playing just for our amusement. Melodious, jolly, brass. Watched by swarms of retirees and families with children, many Germans. No backpackers, no couchsurfers, few people in their 20s, 30s or 40s, or at least not many without kids. Domburg is the kind of place my grandmother would have loved. But I didn’t mind somehow, and loved being there, too.  Me who’s done Ukraine by bike, on my own, even ten years ago. Me who spent the last two summers couchsurfing and cycling through Morocco, and hitchhiking and wildcamping in France and Italy. Even I loved Domburg. And so did everyone else it seems. Olivier, the bikeguru and surfer thought it’s a „very, very, very niiice place“. And so did Irina.

My lunch consisted of three pieces of deliciously warm and fleshy (and overprized) Hollandse Nieuwe (at 2 euros a piece), met ujtjes, and a chicken piri piri pastry, which I jumped on for the sole reason that I had no idea what it was. It just sounded so quintessentially Dutch, a bit like saté kroket or bami and I just had to try it. I found a little bench in the sun (yes, the sun was back again) and indulged. And rarely has herring tasted so good, not to mention that buttery piri piri pastry. But not enough, I also had to have my appeltaart met slagroom. And two koffies. And, on my way out of town, an icecream on top. Haagse hapjes, vanilla with koffie. Just to get my blood sugar levels up all the way. Yes, I was eating myself into some kind of over-energised frenzy, which I though I’d need to master the rest of the day. Because the ride to Middelburg scared me. Another 25km, which would have been nothing under normal circumstances, but with this headwind, they looked daunting.
But then things turned out all different again. The headwind was suddenly tailwind, the sun back out, my sleeves rolled up, my spirits high – and I flew. Or my bike flew me. I barely had to pedal. And instead of taking what felt like four hours, I was in Middelburg within what felt like 40 minutes.

In between parties

While Vlissingen had been swinging with life and sunlight that previous day, and whilst Domburg had been brimming with happy people munching their all-Dutch junk food that afternoon, Middelburg – that evening – seemed dead. Not a soul on the streets, the wind blowing again, a few isolated jazz musicians rehearsing for the open air concert that night, and hesitantly striking some wailing notes, but to not too much of an audience. I must have gotten there in between parties. The football game was over, and the jazz concert hadn’t started yet.

And yet, it was a beautiful town. With an air of grandeur, or at least much more so than any of the other towns on Walcheren. Middelburg is the provincial capital after all. And an ancient one that is. Built in the 13th century, Middelburg grew into one of the Netherlands’ most important trading centres during the late Middle Ages. No wonder the town was full of beautiful architecture. Fivehundred years later, in 1940, Middelburg was heavily bombed by Germany, but rebuilt after the war, much of it in its original style. The Gothic townhouse, built in 1452, (again) a masterpiece.

The Lonely Planet calls the town pleasant, prosperous and sedate. And indeed, it had a calm, dignified, unhurried quality about it. As if this were where Dutch people go when they want to start anew in life. Like after a divorce, or a midlife crisis, or a burn-out from their hectic lives in Amsterdam, Den Haag or Utrecht. A bit like Spain or the south of France, but – in Holland. And then there’s the climate. Zeeland has a peculiar microclimate, which makes for clear skies and sunshine almost all year around. And, last but not least, there’s the dependable and obliging nature of the Zeelanders, who over the centuries have grown used to accommodating all sorts of guests and invaders. But then those stressed-out city people tend to be of an amenable and indulgent breed themselves. Which might be why they chose Zeeland in the first place. Actually, I have no idea. Purely speculating, trying to be clever. And bigtime deducing this from the handful of „import people“ I met there, who tended to be kind and generous NRC-reading, PvdA-voting social workers, civil servants, journalists and artists. But there may be entire colonies of retired VVD members dwelling on their yachts by het Veerse Meer somewhere; I wouldn’t know.

In any case, Middelburg, as pretty much every Dutch town nowadays, has a strong social conscience, or at least pretends it does, and persuasively so. That day, Middelburg hosted a festival commemorating the end of slavery, and the shadowy role the town had played in upholding slavery for many years before that. In Middelburg, there were shipyards, and those shipyards built the ships, which shipped tens of thousands of slaves from Africa to the Americas.

According to the Lifeline Expedition (www.lifelineexpedition.co.uk), an impressive reconciliation initiative launched in the UK in the 1990s bringing together the descendants of people from the three corners of the slave triangle (Europe-Africa-America), “the Dutch were among the most successful traders in slaves, especially during the 17th century.” Shockingly, and with specific reference to the role of Zeeland in all this, the Lifeline Expedition maintains that “altogether, ships from Zeeland made 672 recorded journeys transporting 278,476 slaves, compared to 173 recorded journeys from Amsterdam carrying 73,476 slaves.”  It goes on to say that “the biggest number of voyages was from Vlissingen”, and that “Middleburg and Vlissingen must have been virtual slaving communities, with a substantial amount of manpower involved in the traffic. In fact a report of 1750 confirms that Vlissingen’s only commercial branch of significance was the slave trade.” Hm. Not very palatable.

An excellent article on The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850 puts things into a larger perspective. The author basically suggests that, at the end of the day and compared to other European powers, the Dutch didn’t profit much from the slave trade, which in part explains why the economically disadvantaged province of Zeeland might have been more willing to get involved with it than Holland’s other more prosperous regions.

Past and present

One name I kept coming across on my journey through Walcheren, was that of Admiral Michiel De Ruyter.  Who is this guy, I asked myself, and googled him upon my return to Belgium. And well,  „BadassOfTheWeek.com“ sustains that „this dude is one of the toughest motherfuckers to ever come out of the Low Countries, and one of the most amazing seaborne murder-machines to ever pound his enemies to death with his massive (cannon) balls. In nearly 60 years sailing on the high seas during the Golden Age of Dutch Badassery, this Netherlandian (Netherlanderthal?) aquatic destruction-monger served in seven wars, led warships into combat in over forty engagements, and fought more than fifteen massive full-scale naval battles against the toughest sailors Earth has ever seen.” Right. Woah. But the text is meant to be funny and actually goes on to portray De Ruyter in a very positive light.

According to other and maybe more scientific sources, „badass“ De Ruyter was actually born in Vlissingen, in 1607, has streets named after him in pretty much every town in Holland, and played a significant role in Zeeland’s trading activities in the mid 17th century. Now, whether De Ruyter was a good guy or a bad guy is a tough one to answer. On the face of it, he’s very much a good guy; so at least all of Holland, and beyond, has agreed centuries ago. He heroically fought in the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, and is basically credited for the continued existence of the Netherlands as a sovereign country. Also, he is said to have been a kind and humble man devoted to the wellbeing of his crew, and, last but not least, to have „regularly freed Christian slaves by redeeming them at his own expense”. It appears that even in Hungary, of all places, there’s a monument commemorating the role he played in negotiating the liberation of 26 Hungarian clergymen who had been forced to work as galley slaves by the Spanish. On the other hand, I ask myself, what about the „non-Christian“ slaves? And, if he was one of the biggest traders in Vlissingen at that time, and if the main trade in Vlissingen was slavery back then – well, you do the maths. Unless, he was working to change the system from within? Or maybe I’m missing something. Other must have researched this before, no? In the meantime, he remains a hero.

And in the meantime, Middelburg concentrates on present-day slavery. That weekend, Middelburg was hosting a large-scale photo exhibition reminding people of the fact that slavery exists even today, mainly in the form of forcing undocumented migrants into 18 hour shifts for loans way below the legal minimum wages. And yes, even in EU countries. All documented on large billboards greeting me from above on my way into the town, and educating me on facts and figures. Nicely done (those Dutch!). But quite gruesome indeed.

And, talking about human rights violations (or genocide), well, just a few moments before reaching those billboards (we’re moving backwards now, rewinding the movie so-to-speak), I passed a large Jewish cemetery. Which featured a commemorative plaque honouring the Jewish citizens of Middelburg who were deported to the Nazi death damps. And surprisingly, the gravestones seemed to be chained to each other, which made me wonder whether there had been acts of vandalism. Apparently, Middelburg had quite a flourishing little Jewish community before the war, counting 131 people, says the Joods Historisch Musem website. Then, in 1940, the Middelburg synagogue was plundered by local members of the Dutch collaborationist NSB party, and in 1942, the Middelburg Jews were deported, and none of them returned alive.

Not an easy legacy for Middelburg. First that slave trade, then the ousting of the Jewish community. Driven by the German occupants of course, but possibly helped by the locals. But then, in 1994, the synagogue was restored and rededicated, and in 2004, the first Jewish wedding took place in Middelburg since before the war.  Eind goed, al goed? Minden jó, ha a vége jó? All’s well that ends well? Let’s just say yes. The town’s just too beautiful to be cross with it. By the way, Middelburg’s Jewish community goes back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when Jewish merchants moved to Middelburg from Spain and Portugal, compounded in the late 17th century by Jewish families fleeing pogroms in central and eastern Europe. So, in theory, the Dutch provinces of the Middle Ages, including Zeeland, were a land of refuge and asylum rather than the opposite.

Serendipity

I swiftly cycled through Middelburg, and straight to the train station, and the stationsrestauratie, and Irina’s blue coat. Which I found immediately. And, still inside the stationsrestauratie, I turned around and – there was Anna. My couchsurfing coffee appointment, and that without having made a real appointment. She just knew I had to pick up that coat at some point, and I was all the more delighted to see her. Sometimes things just work out.

Anna is a writer. And many things on top of that. An ex-business consultant that is. And someone hosting poetry and prose salons in Amsterdam, Den Haag and now also in Middelburg. And a woman who once travelled to Nepal to spend 12 months in Bhutanese refugee camp and then wrote a book about it. That is, about a Bhutanese refugee girl who was then resettled to the Netherlands to be precise. In her book, called Headwind, that girl experiences various difficulties as a child in Nepal and upon her arrival in the Netherlands, but then that headwind turns into tailwind and she gradually grows into a self-assured young woman. And yet, that headwind never leaves her altogether – which is probably true for all of us, refugees or not. Hardships, as facts of life, will always be there in one way or another, and it’s all in the „how we cope with it“.

And indeed, headwind had been the theme of my whole day. And Anna has had her share of headwind as well. In her life I mean. Which she’s gloriously managed to turn into tailwind. We spoke about all sorts of things, and it was refreshing to be able to go straight to the point, and talk about „what is really going on“ in our lives, in the way one sometimes finds it easier to talk to perfect strangers than to people one knows one will meet again at work the next morning. I loved Anna’s sunny take on life. I’ve made choices and changes, I’ve re-invented myself, and I’ve made it all work, could have been her line. And yes, she really has. No nonsense, down to earth, getting things done. She amused me with her tales about her upcoming novel set in the Victorian times, which has prompted her to „dress and live like a Victorian“ one day a week to get into her main character. I glanced down at her. „No, today’s the 50s“. Right. She was wearing a stiff blue dotted dress, tights and assorted shoes. The 50s, indeed. The Victorian day must be another day. Can’t wait to get my hands on that book.

After a chat in the station restaurant and a scenic bikeride through the old town, we ended up at Anna’s favourite kroeg, as in bar, or pub, and had another chat session there. That place was my kind of place, like an old sailor’s inn, on a street corner, jolly, open, and flooded with a golden afternoon light which warmed my heart and illuminated the ancient wooden beams framing the doors and windows. Anna ordered a glass of nutwine for me, a deliciously sweet beverage served with ice. A  group of young guys, just random guys from the town it seemed, in their 30s and 40s, entertained everyone and themselves with a roaring interpretation of We are the world, followed by The rivers of Babylon. One of them played the piano. Karaoke, but without the whole (silly) technology. Like in the old days. And they all knew the texts anyways. And all that over Anna’s stories.
I floated. A high. I had clearly arrived at my destination.

Eventually I said goodbye and set out to cycle back. As in, to Vlissingen. Bit tipsy, from the sun as much as from the nutwine. Not sure about my whereabouts. Somewhere in Holland, right. I asked an elderly couple cycling behind me. The road to Vlissingen? No answer; I figured they had to be German tourists. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Ja. Die Strasse nach Vlissingen? Their reply: Immer nach rechts. With a Dutch accent though. Right. Not Germans after all then. I was a bit sceptical. Immer nach rechts sounded a bit like immer geradeaus. But this was not 1940 in Scheveningen, and I didn’t look like a German soldier who had just stolen a bike, did I. I chuckled and came out with U spreekt toch wel Nederlands. Ja, they replied, en u bent Nederlands. As in, me. A compliment, half question, half statement. Nee, niet echt, I confessed. And they liked me all the same. We smiled, she was kind, and the direction was right. And the ride by the canal from Middelburg to Vlissingen memorable. A real treat. They should prescribe this against depression. Or sleeplessness. Or ADHD.
I came home to Froukje’s and Paul’s place 20 minutes later feeling all zen and grounded and blessed. And yes, home was the right word by now. I had missed out on the cooking club that evening, but there were still some of leftovers in the fridge. Mexican tonight, all beans and veg and cheese and salad. Delicious and therapeutic after all that sugar earlier in the day.

Doen!

Two new guests had arrived that night, Vrienden van de Fiets, a father and his 16-year old daughter, a most touchingly sweet little pair. Him involved in a squatting project in Maastricht. I loved the colourful array of people I met in Froukje’s garden, and I had barely scraped the surface of it. Froukje volunteers for 1001 organisations it seems; it was hard to find anything she isn’t involved with in some way. From the cultural centre inside her building to the Refugee University Fund, helping refugees to complete their education in the Netherlands.

And then our conversations. Like in the old days, before email and facebook. When people actually still talked to each other and without keeping the TV on while doing so. But, with perfect strangers. Which maybe wouldn’t have happened back then. Before the internet gave us insight into the fact that we’re basically all the same; striving for the same stuff, struggling with the same stuff. So, I was getting the best of both worlds. Modern day internet connectivity which had allowed me to hook up with them in the first place. And old school appreciation for real togetherness and communication. And it was so easy to talk to them. I’m always curious and one word gave way to another.

About the ties we have on this planet. Family and other ties. About who our friends are. Are facebook friends friends?  The kind we do know personally of course, but communicate with only to let them know that we’ve just gotten up to a wonderful new day, purchased a new pair of glittery pink sandals, or booked a holiday to Spain? And how about couchsurfing friends? Or vrienden op de fiets friends? Are new networks replacing vanishing old structures? Are fast-paced, short-lived friendships supplanting long-lasting ones? Friendship almost as a consumer good, something we can order and book online these days? We talked about giving and taking, and loyalty and betrayal. Verbijsterend teleursgestelt are two words that I learned that day. And that I won’t forget so quickly. They really struck a chord with me. And this whole last year. As the ultimate expression of a sense of total abandon by those one had cared about, relied on and trusted most. But is anyone of us really immune to that? And what happens when that stuff happens? How do we cope? Do we cope?

Froukje had a nice book about that. Called Borderline Times and written by Leuven-based Belgian psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter who maintains that many of us no longer do. And drift off into self-diagnosed mental illness instead. „I’m unhappy so something must be wrong with me“. And then fall into the pharmaceutical industry trap. „Let me purchase a pill to sort me out“. Helped by the growing hype around „trendy“ mental disorders like ADHD in adults, bipolar disorder and borderline syndrom. And yet, de Wachter says, it’s not so much those more vulnerable individuals who feel like there’s something wrong with them and who come seek help in his psychiatric praxis that are the sick ones. Instead, he says, it’s society as a whole, which makes them feel that way, that needs to be looked at. He calls it de geluksmaatschappij, the happiness society, where we’ve all made it our personal aim in life to show the rest of the world how happy and exciting our lives are. In colour, with pictures, on facebook, or elsewhere, and every day. It’s us, the mainstream, those creating and cultivating this climate and keeping up the pressure, and increasingly hiding ourselves behind shields and layers of – well, basically hypocrisy – who are the sick ones. Or sickly ones. Suffering from borderline syndrome. Often characterised by a sense of emptiness and fear of abandon. And yes, I could see that. Again, that family and other ties question.

Froukje and Paul seem to have resolved that question for themselves by opening their house and lives to all those who can appreciate it. And by taking action, serving, advancing and not looking back much. And by trying to keep in touch. „Why don’t you come to Zeeland in a year from now, when you have a stressful job, and treat yourself to little weekends in Zeeland and in Maastricht, chilling?“ she asked me, followed by her trademark line: „Doen!“ As in: „Just do it! And not just talk about it!“ In the same way she encouraged others to try camping, to borrow her bikes, and to organise a trip around the world.“ And I concluded that Froukje’s the kind of person who should have five children and ten grandchildren and who’d be a role model to each one of them.

On Sunday morning, Vaderdag, I said goodbye to my hosts, their guests and the neighbours from heaven, and started my retreat. Suddenly it was all over. My way back was uneventful. Within ten minutes I was at the ferry, within 30 minutes I was in Zeeuws Vlaanderen again, on the other side of the Schelde,  and within three hours I was back in Knokke.

And yet, I felt I’ve had it all. Headwind and tailwind, pain and pleasure, some fear and anxiety, much good fortune and lovely surprises, a sense of disconnect, and then again heart-to-heart connections, out of the blue, „boddhisatvas from the earth“, crowds and one-to-ones, past and present, history and mystery, insights into my life and the lives of the others, intertwining and parting again, like the waves of the ocean behind Froukje and Paul’s house.

Zingy Zeeland.

 

 

Europäisches Kartell

Posted by on 24/07/14

“Die EU-Kommission setzt auf Energieverschwendung” – das vernichtende Urteil der DENEF(Deutsche Unternehmensinitiative Energie-Effizienz) ist berechtigt… Statt um 40% will die Kommission den Energieverbrauch bis 2030 lediglich um 30% senken, und das nicht einmal für alle Mitgliedsstaaten verbindlich… Dass die EU-Kommission in derselben Sitzung die Reform des deutschen EEG durchwinkt, ist mehr als nur ein Zufall. Denn beide Entscheidungen hängen eng miteinander zusammen und sind getragen von demselben rückwärtsgewandten Geist.

Im Interesse des alten nuklear-fossilen Energiekartells und der eng mit ihm verbunden energie-intensiven Industrie werden die für die gesamte Gesellschaft so wichtigen und übergeordneten Ziele einer vernünftigen Energiepolitik über Bord geworfen, vom Klimaschutz über die Verringerung der Abhängigkeit von Energie-Importen bis hin zur Senkung der stetig wachsenden Kosten für die EU-Energie-Importe…

Dabei war Deutschland auf einem guten Weg: Mit der Energiewende wurde vorgemacht, wie Effizienz, Ausbau der Erneuerbaren und Reduzierung des CO2-Ausstoßes wirtschaftlich zu schaffen sind. Doch Gabriel und Oettinger praktizieren offenbar auch auf EU-Ebene und in Sachen Energie die Große Koalition: Der deutsche Energieminister hebelt das EEG aus und sorgt für weiterhin großzügige Strompreisrabatte, ausgerechnet für die größten Stromfresser, und Oettinger sorgt dafür, dass der Druck zur Energie-Effizienz aus Brüssel nicht zu groß wird.

Das Ergebnis: Mit den niedrigsten Industriestrompreisen seit 2005 sinkt die Bereitschaft der Unternehmen für Investitionen in Energie-Effizienzmaßnahmen nahezu auf Null – und nebenbei freuen sich RWE., E.ON & Co., weil gerade diese Stromfresser zu ihren wichtigsten Kunden zählen.

So schließt sich der Kreis: Energiepolitik hat eben leider auch im Jahr 2014, auch in Zeiten von Klimawandel, Energiewende, Ukraine-Krise und schwindenden Ölreserven nur begrenzt etwas mit Vernunft, dafür aber umso mehr mit Interessen, Macht und Geld zu tun.

City of Zagreb still playing with fire

Posted by on 20/07/14

Seasoned Bankwatch-watchers may recall our successful four-year campaign to stop the EBRD from financing a waste incinerator just outside Zagreb. Between 2005 and 2008, we supported Zelena akcija/Friends of the Earth Croatia and local group UZOR to prevent the City of Zagreb from building a huge 385 000 tonnes per year waste incinerator in Resnik on the outskirts of Croatia’s capital.

The reasons against the project were clear: the low levels of recycling and composting in Zagreb, the lack of facilities to safely dispose of the bottom ash, fly ash and filter residues, the inflexibility of such a large facility and poor previous experience with environmental enforcement in Croatia.

Whether for these or other reasons, the EBRD and later the EIB wisely avoided financing the project, with the Mayor of Zagreb confirming in late 2008 that the project would not go ahead.

Since then however, the City of Zagreb seems intent on passing a waste management plan that includes almost exactly the same measures, in spite of Zelena akcija’s best efforts to promote alternatives. The city is again holding a public consultation for a plan that looks eerily similar to the previous.

Even though Croatia must recycle 50 percent of its waste by 2020 as per EU targets and Zagreb has almost a quarter of the country’s population, the city’s new draft waste plan still has the incinerator project as its centrepiece, now – incomprehensibly – with a capacity of 400 000 tonnes per year.

This in spite of the fact that Zagreb’s annual residual waste actually dropped to around 270 000 tonnes per year for the years 2009-2013, all with a very low percentage of recycling and no serious efforts to reduce the production of waste. So imagine what would happen if Zagreb’s authorities really made an effort on recycling, composting and waste reduction.

The proposed waste management plan foresees no less than EUR 360 million for the construction of the incinerator and an ash landfill, 35 times less money for recycling and separated collection, and zero for waste reduction measures. The costs of the incinerator alone total 83 per cent of the entire budget to implement the plan, turning the waste hierarchy on its head.

The only city-wide recycling measures include an increased number of recycling containers, which enable recycling only of a few materials and have long proven to be of limited use when people must walk further to use them and have no economic incentive to do so.

The need to treat waste sludge from Zagreb’s controversial wastewater treatment plant is often cited as a reason for the incinerator, but no alternative treatments are covered in the waste management plan, nor is there an explanation of what will happen once the backlog of sludge is burned and Zagreb does not produce enough other waste to fill it. Importing other people’s waste seems like the only outcome if the burner is built.

The incinerator would create around 100 000 tonnes of ash, but there have so far been no realistic proposals of where this could be landfilled, as all suggested locations have been met unsurprisingly with fierce local resistance. It is also unclear where the hazardous fractions of the waste eg. the filter residues, would be disposed of and how much this would cost, but considering that Croatia has no suitable facilities it can be expected that this could incur considerable costs and as well raise ethical questions about leaving other countries to bear the consequences of Croatia’s waste.

The frustrating thing is that the alternatives – waste prevention, recycling, composting and mechanical biological treatment with anaerobic digestion – are available and functioning in many cities, but the City of Zagreb refuses to see this. We must move quickly beyond this impasse and agree on a waste management plan we can all live with. And that means that the City of Zagreb will have to open its ears and start listening rather than blundering blindly on with its plans.

The question here is where the international financial institutions stand. A meeting with EBRD representatives in Zagreb in May 2013 showed that the bank is aware of the imperative of solving Zagreb’s waste problem and is interested in supporting the city’s efforts. But will it silently follow the City of Zagreb’s increasingly absurd plans or help it finally develop a waste management system we can be proud of?

27% ≠ 27% ≠ a good idea

Posted by on 17/07/14

By Adam White, Research Coordinator at WWF European Policy Office’s Climate and Energy Unit

The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.

- Aristotle

When it comes to European targets for greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, every percentage point is closely modelled and examined.  The esoteric target of 27% renewable energy is the product of European Commission analysis on contributions to reach the (inadequate) 40% emissions cut by 2030.

A separate review of Energy Efficiency, still in draft form, looked at energy savings of up to 40%, as called for by Parliament and NGOs, and while it did examine 28%, 30 and 35%, found greater benefits to the higher end.

Unfortunately, such dedicated number gazing sometimes clashes with politics, or circumstance, or – as in the case of the 2030 energy efficiency target – both.

The higher energy efficiency numbers are intimidating to a Commission that’s afraid of doing battle with difficult Member States, and contradict its earlier 2030 framework review (the one done prior to the recognition by all concerned that efficiency is crucial to energy security).

Never fear, because some Commissioners have cooked up a solution: simply ‘match’ the efficiency target to the renewables target – 27%/27%. Neat and parallel (and more than an echo of Commissioner Oettinger’s earlier 30/30/30 rhetoric).  Sadly, it is just not as simple as that.  However similar the numbers seem on paper – in reality they mean very different things.

The renewables target applies to the share of final energy use – the proportion of renewable energy we get when we switch on lights.  On the other hand, the efficiency target applies to cuts in primary energy use below a baseline projection – so it reflects the reduction in the amount of fuel used in the EU compared to expectations absent the applicable policy.

These are completely different notions. 27% in no way equals 27%.

The renewable energy target and the efficiency target interact in complex ways.  You can reduce the EU’s consumption of fuel, and therefore help to meet the efficiency target, by increasing renewable energy.  This is because renewable energy technologies convert their energy inputs (sun, wind) more efficiently than traditional power plants convert coal and gas into electricity.  The converse is also true, you can help meet the renewables target by boosting efficiency, since the less total energy you use, the easier it is for a higher proportion of that total to be met by renewables.

These are all considerations that the number crunchers pay close attention to, but which their bosses seem willing to overlook in the interests of symmetry and expediency.  And like a heart bypass candidate who can’t resist another double cheese hamburger, the Commission has decided to ignore the consequences of their bad decision: a 27% energy efficiency target actually represents a slowdown of current efforts, and would put in jeopardy the improved health and billions of euros saved every year that efficiency delivers.

Interesting how a Commission which is almost 70% male, and 100% white is apparently only interested in equality when it comes to plucking numbers out of the air.

 

EU deploys innovative finance tools to improve energy efficiency

Posted by on 16/07/14

Ambitious energy efficiency targets will require significant investment from the private sector. Public authorities are learning fast from innovative financing mechanisms the EU is putting in place to achieve this.

Energy efficiency has traditionally been viewed as a public good financed by public sector grants. But the public purse can only do so much and the pressure is mounting.

Now, with rising energy prices and an increasingly urgent climate agenda, European energy legislation is driving ambitious targets including: renovation of public buildings; energy efficiency obligations for energy suppliers; and overall demand-side reduction.

Growing investment opportunity

Across all sectors, global energy efficiency investments totalled $300 billion in 2011 – a substantial and growing market opportunity for investors.

It is estimated that urban areas are responsible for 70% – 80% of energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in Europe. For this reason, various EU initiatives are encouraging towns and cities to take the lead in the fight against climate change.

To reach the EU’s 20:20:20 target (20% of EU energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2020; a 20% improvement in energy efficiency; and a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with 1990), the required annual investment in the buildings sector alone is estimated at €65-100 billion ($89-136 billion) between 2011 and 2020.

Public authorities are generally called upon to lead investments. Across Europe, over 300 regions and 150,000 municipalities account for two-thirds (€178.9 billion in 2011) of the total public investment expenditure and have major powers in key sectors such as education, the environment, transport and economic development.

Grant support for public authorities in any Member State seeking to launch sustainable energy investments is available under the Intelligent Energy Europe programme (launched in 2003 and now subsumed into the EU’s €80 billion research and innovation programme Horizon 2020).

Ambitious leverage goals

Grants amounting to €148 million are disbursed via the European Local Energy Assistance (ELENA) facility (administered by the European Investment Bank, Germany’s KfW, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Council of Europe Development Bank) and the Mobilising Local Energy Investments (MLEI) facility –administered by the European Commission’s agency for small and medium-sized enterprises (EASME).

This grant support is conditional on projects achieving a minimum leverage (EU grant to total investment) of 1:20 and 1:15, respectively. So far, €81.2 million has been provided to 56 projects.

Achieving this leverage requires local and regional authorities to negotiate a steep learning curve. New kinds of partnerships with financial institutions will be crucial to scaling up sustainable energy investment programmes, and combining public and private funding.

Building renovation is essential

Thorough renovation of buildings involves long payback periods but is essential to achieve the maximum savings potential – and reach the EU objective of reducing buildings’ energy consumption by 80 % by 2050. In support of this goal, the Commission is designing new ‘off the shelf’ financial instruments, including renovation loans, aimed at combining public and private money to finance investment in energy efficiency or renewables.

“It’s going to take a historic level of public-private cooperation to meet the EU’s 2020 targets,” said a recent report from the Energy Efficiency Financial Institutions Group (EEFIG), which includes high level representatives of the European Commission’s DG Energy, UNEP Finance Initiative, financial institutions and investment funds.

In its first report released in April, the group concluded that, in order to attract private capital such as pension funds, insurance or real estate trust funds, the energy efficiency investment market “needs to transform” – to become more predictable, well-understood and standardised.

According to Paul Hodson, head of the energy efficiency unit at DG Energy: “Energy efficiency is today at the crossroads. Either it will become a mainstream investment area, or we risk losing the vast potential to invest into measures that not only contribute to the fight against climate change, but also bring economic benefits.”

The Commission is now undertaking a review of energy efficiency policy, he notes. “We are convinced that this will help to transform the market as needed – and as called for by market participants.”

 

From 2014 to 2020, another pot of EU public money – upwards of €37 billion earmarked for the ‘transition to a low-carbon economy’ – is available through the European Structural and Investment funds. The Commission is pushing Member States to replace grants with revolving loans or guarantee funds (for residential retrofit) and energy performance contracts for public and commercial buildings.

Optimal strategies for developing the energy efficiency investment market are under discussion within EEFIG but, as coordinator Peter Sweatman points out: “We’re working with 51 people representing 30 institutions to deliver a consensus view on financing energy efficiency. We have our work cut out for us.”

A plea for a pragmatic approach to global climate policy

Posted by on 14/07/14

During the last 50 years global energy demand has risen at an unprecedented pace and is expected to continue rising further in the wake of growing world population and prosperity.

These trends are not sustainable. The energy resources (coal, oil, gas, uranium) are finite and burning them is bound to accelerate climate change to a point of no return destroying the basis of human livelihood.

Climate scientists and almost all governments on earth share this basic assessment. But while scientists urge for action to be taken politicians are wavering in the face of powerful fossil energy lobbies and industry pressing for low energy prices.

Fortunately, tenuous signs for a change are appearing in the two most polluting countries, China and USA, on which the success of any international action hinges.

China has placed the fight against energy waste, air pollution and climate change among the top priorities of its Five Year Plan 2011-15. It is determined to increase its overall energy efficiency; and it envisages stepping up research and pilot projects for carbon capture and storage which is vital for continuing to burn coal with which it is amply endowed. But though the government is to be congratulated for finally acknowledging the seriousness of climate change its actions continue to fall far short of what is needed. Chinese green house gas emissions will therefore keep rising for at least 20 more years.

USA, the second biggest emitter of GHG has made great strides under the Obama Administration, thanks to circumventing a hostile Congress by executive action in the form of technical standards. CO2 emissions have begun to fall from exorbitant levels of 17 tons/per capita, due to increasing switch from coal to gas as the major fuel in power generation and stringent fuel consumption standards for passenger cars.

Driven by concerns about their security of supply, both countries will press for higher energy efficiency, in particular in buildings, and more power generation through renewables – wind, sun, hydro and biomass. But neither is ambitious enough and postulate largely C02 free energy by the middle of the century.

Only the EU, the third biggest energy consumer and CO2 emitter, can so far boast of an established record against climate change. Until 2020 its CO2 emissions will be down by 20 per cent over 1990; and it is set to reduce them by 80-95 per cent until the middle of the century. No other country has so far announced similar ambitions. But with a share of only some 12 per cent of global emissions it does not carry enough weight for preserving the climate.

Both USA and EU owe their relative success to the setting of medium and long-term targets and taking concrete measures. That distinguishes their approach from the UN-directed efforts which continue to lack precision of the targets and fail to prescribe concrete measures. Moreover, there is no political drive without which policies cannot be conceived and implemented. This is normal for assemblies grouping some 200 states with totally different levels of energy consumption and representing fundamentally different views on the future.

In order to achieve a positive outcome from the decisive Paris Climate Conference in November 2015 participant countries need to change the modus operandi of their future negotiations. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon might have made a beginning by calling a restricted high-level meeting of heads of government from the main polluter countries at the margin of the September 2014 General Assembly.

To ensure a successful result in Paris the leaders of the countries responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions must agree on a cooperative strategy to keep global temperatures within a two degree Celsius rise over pre-industrial levels.

A group of climate and energy research institutes from 15 major emitter countries has translated the “two centigrade target” into the necessary reductions of green house gas emissions. The result will come as a shock for policy makers: average per capita green house gas emissions must not exceed 1.6 ton by the middle of the century. Only the poor, mostly African, countries can still indulge in rising emissions. Most other countries including EU, Japan, China and Russia will need to reduce them by around three quarters and some 20 countries like United Arab Emirates Canada, Australia, USA with very high per capita emissions by even 90 per cent until 2050.

This will be a huge challenge for every country and Humanity. It is therefore crucial to provide for an equitable burden sharing among Humanity, which per capita green house emissions, reflect better than any other yardstick.

At the Paris conference, the parties should focus on two conclusions:

  • All countries will reduce their green house gas emissions by 2050 to 1.6 tons per capita by 2050.
  • Countries emitting already more than seven tons per capita will present their strategy for implementation to the UN Secretary General for approval before 2020. Countries with per capita emissions of less than one ton can wait with presenting their climate strategy until 2030 or until exceeding a level of emissions of more than one ton.

The UN Secretary General will appoint a special representative for the preparations.

This procedure will replace the annual climate conferences, from which the necessary policy changes cannot emerge, due to increasing level of bureaucratisation, too many participants and lack of political commitment.

Future climate policy will be more differentiated by countries, and the UN should be empowered to fix policy guidelines and monitor implementation.

The following guidelines might inspire national and global policy makers:

  • All countries subsidising fossil fuels must phase these out by 2020. That process has started under the pressure from IEA and others.
  • All countries will have to invest heavily in much higher energy efficiency:
    • Thanks to perfect thermal insulation buildings must become autonomous from fossil energy.
    • The internal combustion engine must be replaced by battery-propelled electric engines, fed from renewable sources.
  • All countries must step up their recycling efforts, following the lead the by European Union
  • To slow down population growth and global energy demand developing countries must take appropriate measures and thereby contribute to the fight against climate change.
  • Countries with large forest areas must preserve these, which is vital for stabilising global environment and climate.
  • Countries in the solar belt must fully exploit their solar potential for electricity generation.
  • Countries like China, Russia, Australia and Canada that want to continue exploiting their huge coal or gas reserves must invest in carbon capture and storage.
  • Countries situated along the Seas must exploit their wind power potential and develop technologies for “harvesting” wave energies.

The World Bank, in conjunction with regional Development Banks must become the global financing and technical assistance agent for implementing the challenging structural changes towards a non-fossil society. To that end it should be in charge of managing the $ 100 billion annual International Climate Fund that the developed countries have pledged to establish by 2020.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 12/7/2014

Serbian government props up almighty coal

Posted by on 02/07/14

A new report by the Belgrade-based NGO CRTA shows that the Serbian government is supporting the Kostolac coal power plant and mines with loan guarantees and potentially VAT exemptions. Propping up the already dominant coal sector, however, will likely further increase Serbia’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. Increasing Serbia’s energy efficiency and renewables generation would be the wiser choice.

by Pippa Gallop, cross-posted from the Bankwatch blog

Since 2006 when the Energy Community was founded and its member countries committed to adhere to EU legislation on state aid, the Serbian government has provided several forms of support for the Kostolac lignite power plant and mines company, part of state company Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS), and is now planning to provide further support by approving loan guarantees in the National Assembly for the construction of the 350 MW Kostolac unit B3.

  • A project that is currently being undertaken by China’s CMEC is the reconstruction of existing blocks B1 and B2 at the Kostolac power plant. It was the Serbian government, not EPS, who signed a contract for a USD 293 million loan (85 percent of the project value) from the China ExIm Bank.
  • Since part of the project consists of transportation infrastructure – a landing dock on the Danube and railway infrastructure – it is also possible that a clause from an annex (pdf) to the 2009 Serbia-China agreement will be applied, exempting the import and supply of goods and services for the project from VAT and customs duties.
  • What is still coming up is the construction of a new 350 MW unit at Kostolac B and expand the Drmno lignite mine, for which the Serbian government in November 2013 signed a contract with CMEC. The project depends on financing from the China ExIm Bank and unnamed commercial banks, and on a state guarantee from the Serbian government for these loans. The 2014 Serbian state budget allocates two guarantees for the project – USD 107 million for un-named commercial banks and USD 608 million for the China Exim Bank.

The state support for Kostolac outlined in the new report (pdf) is just one example of how Serbian state authorities are systematically propping up an already almighty coal industry. If plans for a new energy strategy for Serbia are anything to go by (discussions are ongoing about the blueprint for the energy sector for the period 2015-2025), Serbian authorities also plan to continue with this kind of support for the dirtiest of fossil fuels into the next decade.

On a path prone to disaster

Serbia, as a member of the Energy Community, has committed to abide by the EU’s complex rules on subsidies and it is not yet clear whether the support outlined above is in line with these. But in any case, as a candidate country for EU accession and a member of the Energy Community, Serbia needs to increase its energy efficiency and reach a renewable energy target of 27 percent by 2020. This implies a decrease in the percentage of coal in the energy mix.

But these are not the only reasons to pursue such a path. Serbia, like all of south east Europe, is vulnerable to natural disasters, including those exacerbated by climate change such as floods, heat waves, cold waves, droughts and forest fires. This May’s tragic floods – which claimed at least 51 lives and led to the evacuation of nearly 30,000 people from flooded towns and villages in Serbia alone – propelled the issue into the global headlines, but extreme weather events have been increasing in frequency for years already.

Among others, between 2000 and 2010 eight serious flood events affected 51 290 people and killed four (pdf), while a 2012 drought led to the loss of 45 percent of Serbia’s maize crop (pdf).

With each disaster costing huge amounts of money to clear up, Serbia, like other countries in the region, needs to be quicker in recognising its self-interest in slowing climate change and making its infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather events.

In this respect, lignite power stations are problematic in both cause and effect. On one hand, coal is the biggest contributor to climate change (IEA, pdf). At the same time, coal power plants are vulnerable to extreme weather, as the recent Serbian floods showed, in which two pits of the Kolubara open cast lignite mines were completely flooded – with estimated costs of EUR 100 million – and electricity generation was cut by 40 percent at the height of the floods. While a mammoth effort to stop the Kostolac B plant from being flooded was ultimately successful, here too it was a close shave and could easily have resulted in generation capacity being shut down.

At the other end of the scale, coal power generation is also extremely water-intensive and – like hydropower and nuclear – vulnerable to drought. Some countries have started to recognise this problem (pdf) however in south east Europe the discussion so far on drought has centred almost exclusively on hydropower.

The positive flip-side is that non-hydropower renewable energy is both a climate change mitigation tool and an adaptation one, since it is decentralised and with the exception of biomass has no CO2 emissions during operation, and energy efficiency measures are better still. Yet Serbia, along with its neighbours, consistently treats these as a side salad rather than the main dish.

After the recent floods it is high time for Serbia to think again about its energy strategy – a new one of which is currently in its draft stages – and avoid tragedies recurring again in the future. But as money often ends up being the defining factor in what goes ahead and what doesn’t, CRTA’s new report (pdf) gives every reason to re-think state support for the coal sector whether or not Serbia opens up its draft energy strategy for discussion again.

France is getting serious modernising its Energy Sector

Posted by on 23/06/14

With the presentation on June 18th of a comprehensive energy transition programme the French energy minister has started to fulfil promises made during the 2012 Presidential election campaign.

The programme is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion on European energy and climate policy beyond 2020 and the preparation for the decisive international climate conference in Paris in the fall of 2015.

France wants to create a new “energy model” for the post-fossil era that should make it less dependent on fossil energy imports, create jobs and help develop new energy technologies. Energy efficiency and renewable energies enter the forefront, nuclear power loses its predominance.

Its overriding objective is to reduce energy consumption by half until 2050, an ambitious objective.

To that end, it defines energy targets and some 50 specific actions addressing energy efficiency, transport, renewable energies and administrative procedures.

Nuclear power will continue to remain the main pillar of French electricity supply, though its share in power generation is set to fall from 75% presently to 50% by 2025.

France is thus proceeding differently from Germany which – somewhat too hastily – envisages to shut down its last reactor by 2022. An adequate French nuclear capacity might supply Germany with electricity in periods without sunshine or wind and avoid it from having to install extra gas fired power plants for this eventuality. One more reason for the rapid completion of the single power and gas market!

In order to halve its energy consumption France intends to launch a campaign for more energy efficiency, especially in buildings, which account for 44% of C02 emissions (123 million tons). Many French citizens face high heating costs due to insufficient thermal insulation: while average households have to shoulder an annual bill of € 900, those with good insulation pay only € 250 and badly insulated houses as much as € 2500. The government therefore wants to renovate 0.5 million apartments annually in order to reduce the energy consumption of housing by half until 2050.

It will offer significant fiscal incentives and loan facilities to facilitate the necessary investments. It will also step up training for some 25.000 energy specialists annually, set up demonstration buildings that achieve a positive energy balance through the combination of perfect insulation and solar energy installations. Municipalities will provide one-stop desks to advise citizens about fiscal advantages and credit facilities.

Transport accounting for 27% of CO2 emissions and most of the oil consumption is the s second major axis of the programme.

Here France is much more ambitious than Germany, which has focused on “green electricity”. By 2030 the transport sector should obtain 15% (7% in 2012) of its fuel from renewable sources, above all biofuels and green electricity. The government will grant premiums for the purchase of e-vehicles indefinitely .

In addition, it will continue encouraging the use of bicycles as an alternative to cars, most of which are used for trips of less than two km.

Recycling will be the most innovate chapter of the new energy model. The more material, from metals to paper, is being recycled the less energy will be necessary. France already recycles some 50% of all materials. But it wants to do even better and progress toward the “circular economy” which will become the paradigm of the future.

To implement this ambitious programme the French bureaucracy will have to simplify and accelerate its procedures. This is the last and not least important aspect of the programme.

But first of all a legislative proposal needs to be presented to stake holders, civil society and, of course, parliament, for an intensive nation-wide debate, which should last until October/November. Implementation, which is crucial, will not start before the beginning of 2015.

If everything proceeds according to schedule, France can proudly present its comprehensive approach toward energy and climate to its EU partners and the international climate conference in Paris in November 2015 for inspiration.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 22/6/2014

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