The green image of the Dutch is at odds with the reality
But don’t swim in it
ON A cold morning, when the mist rises over the canals that criss-cross the countryside, spreading over the woods and flatlands, the Netherlands does not feel like a sink-hole of pollution. But the ice-encrusted water is brimming with nitrates and phosphates, and the air is clogged with particulate matter.
The country’s poor environmental record is revealed in a report by Natuur & Milieu, an advocacy group. Rather than conduct its own measurements the group collected data from various official agencies. Its report shows the Dutch lagging behind their European peers for quality of air, soil and surface water, stuck in fossil-fuel dependency, and with exceptionally high carbon emissions.
On Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, the Netherlands comes 20th out of the 27 EU countries. It scores particularly badly on the quality of its soil, where those phosphates and nitrates linger in large quantities. They seep into surface water, the quality of which is also below EU guidelines. Emissions of nitrogen monoxide and dioxide are triple the EU average. Carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 15% between 1990 and 2010. Only vast purchases of emission rights keep the Netherlands below its Kyoto targets.
There is broad agreement on the causes. The Netherlands has the highest numbers of livestock per head in Europe; these beasts produce unrecyclable amounts of manure that pollute soil and water. The country is a transport hub. Lorries and river barges use diesel, a source of particulates. The Dutch have many energy-hungry industries, such as refineries, steelworks and chemical plants. With not much land and lots of people, pollution looks inevitable.
The government does not dispute the report. Even the queen is concerned, referring in her Christmas speech to the limits of the earth’s ability to sustain “human greed”. Yet although it supports small environmental projects, the government does not seem worried about the big picture. In hard times it is not about to make life harder for industries that boost state coffers and supply jobs.
Anyway, life in what some greens have dubbed “Europe’s drainage hole” may not be so bad. The scary claim that particulate matter in the air knocks off 155,000 years of life amounts to just one month per person, says Pieter Boot of the Dutch planning bureau for the environment. The average Dutch person is taller and lives longer than most other Europeans. And although the country may be overpopulated and polluted, the UN’s human-development index ranks it as the third-best place to live in the world, after Norway and Australia. High living standards, good health care and low accident-mortality rates matter, says Mr Boot. In times of crisis, they may seem to matter more than the environment.
Source: The Economist