Derk LoorbachDerk Loorbach (1975) is a Professor of Socio-Economic Transitions at the Faculty of Social Science and the director of DRIFT, an EUR-affiliated institute that focuses on consultancy and directing public opinion as well as on research and teaching. Loorbach is one of the founders of the Dutch transition research and is involved in many sustainability-related projects, generally in association with government bodies, the business community, scientists and civil society.

How are we doing?

“When I interviewed by Erasmus Magazine in 2008, I said it was five to twelve. It is now twelve o’clock. We will be dealing with rises in temperature, drought and self-reinforcing melting of ice caps. This warming is just the tip of the iceberg. The refugee crisis is partially caused by climate change, because many places on earth are becoming unliveable. In the Netherlands, we will increasingly have to deal with such consequences. And will we be able to handle sea levels rising by six metres?”

We have known for quite some time that the planet
is warming up. So why are we not doing anything?

“It is human nature to wish to keep doing things that way. It gives us a sense of security. Just to give you an example: at present, the meat industry is responsible for almost twenty percent of global CO2 emissions. But whenever we have a reception, we still serve bitterballen, and we always serve buns with ham at lunchtime. Another important consideration in all of this is that the Netherlands earns a lot of money because of its efficient meat industry. Just try putting a stop to that.”

Do you eat meat?

“Hardly, these days. The perfect sustainable diet is the Indian diet: have chicken once or twice a week, eat vegetarian meals the rest of the week. My whole family has made the switch.”

I’ll bet that didn’t go over well.

“You get used to it quickly. I used to love steak, so that was a pity, but I really don’t miss it these days. Of course, changing people’s behaviour is difficult. Everyone thinks he is entitled to overseas flights, to having a car sitting in front of the house, to having meat every day. But why do we take these things for granted? To our grandparents, meat was a luxury item. That is the hard thing about this transition. People suffered during previous transitions – take, for instance, coalmen who lost their jobs when all houses were equipped with gas pipes – but the transitions always involved increased prosperity and comfort. Whereas this time, we may actually have to reduce our level of comfort.”

em- klimaatconferentie parijs

While you are eating tofu and veggie burgers, the
president of the United States appointed a climate
sceptic, Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental
Protection Agency. Surely that must have been a
considerable disappointment?

“I very much consider that part of the process. The more competitive and accessible alternatives to dominant structures become, the harder the regime will fight them. This will result in increased chaos, which in turn will result in a more powerful countermovement. When Pruitt was appointed, the state of California responded by saying, ‘If you no longer feel like you are in America, come to us. We will achieve zero carbon emissions by 2030.’ It is all a matter of action and reaction. In this regard, Trump is a blessing for the transition. Something is really going to happen. The financial crisis of the last few years has not resulted in a new system, because there were no genuine alternatives. So we helped the old system get back on its feet by means of taxpayers’ money. But alternatives to fossil fuels are so ready to be implemented.”

You are researching the “energy transition” that is
currently happening. What is that?

“It’s the transition from a complex system that revolves around centralised sources of fossil fuels, to a decentralised and completely sustainable system. People have been experimenting in society for years: entrepreneurs, inventors, trend setters. We have had the technical solutions for quite a while now. I am highly optimistic about our collective ability to create things. However, I am less enthusiastic about our ability to adjust the system. A fossil-fuel-free economy can only be realised if we change the preconditions: new laws, regulations and taxes. But this means the government will have to intervene, which VVD – once again our largest party – traditionally objects to.”

What other parties in the Netherlands are currently
blocking progress?

“I prefer using the phrase ‘struggling along with us’. Established parties such as the VNO-NCW employers’ organisation and Shell have begun to see that they must redefine their position, but in many respects, it is in their best interests not to do so. Shell can’t just drop all fossil fuel infrastructure and start focusing exclusively on solar energy and wind energy. If they were to do so, their own shareholder value would implode. The same thing is true for VVD. If this party were to say that they are getting rid of cars and we have to reduce our meat intake, it would commit political suicide. For this reason, parties like these try to control the transition. But they are trying to control the speed of a process that by definition cannot be controlled.”

What are the first measures you would implement
if you were the Minister for Sustainability?

“A lot of changes are already being implemented, but generally by intrinsically motivated amateurs to whom it matters that their homes be insulated or that they can generate their own electricity. It is now up to politicians to enable such projects and scale them up. So let’s start by phasing out natural gas. Tell housing associations to make their homes completely climate-neutral. Grid operators must do their utmost to enable decentralised electricity generation, as Eneco and Liander are already doing. Furthermore, the port must be revamped. And we should not be afraid to tell consumers to change their habits. It’s about time that we started seriously raising taxes on polluting materials and meat.”

We annually emit 200 megatonnes of CO2
, whereas
the Chinese emit 10,000 megatonnes per
year. Critics are saying: what’s the point of the
Netherlands trying to be holier than thou when the
Chinese are emitting so much more?

“People asking such questions are evading the subject. As if minor polluters are completely excused from assuming responsibility for their own emissions. Prime Minister Rutte feels that CO2 crosses boundaries. This is true, but many sustainable innovations have a direct positive effect on health and people’s level of independence. As for the Chinese, they are light years ahead of us in terms of sustainable energy, construction and transportation. Sure, they have some issues, but they are far less stuck in antiquated systems than we are. China is still growing, but its CO2 emissions have remained at the same level.”

em-zonne energie energiezuinig

Back in the old days, rivers were full of heavy metals,
and city dwellers suffered serious lung issues
due to air pollution. The quality of our living environment
has improved considerably. Does this
make the need for change less urgent?

“Things are going well for us because we have placed the negative consequences of our level of consumption and production elsewhere, or deferred them until later. It’s true: we have clean air and clean rivers. But the consequences will return to us like a boomerang. All things are interconnected. Some people will use this as an argument for doing nothing, as with Rutte and his infinite CO2 emissions. Others will use it as an argument for doing whatever we are capable of doing.”