Amsterdam climate neutral by 2025


(Image: Flickr user sandeep thukral (cc: by-nc-sa))

Amsterdam has long been known as a pioneering city. Four hundred years ago, it was a leader in religious tolerance and global commerce. More recently, the Dutch city’s been known for its relaxed approach to drugs and prostitution. Well now Amsterdam is hoping to lead the way on one of the most critical challenges of our time: climate change.

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As "The World's" Kathleen Schalch reports, Amsterdam hopes to build a green path to the future by dramatically lowering the carbon footprint of its residents.

Compared to Americans, the Dutch are energy misers. They emit half as much greenhouse gas per capita, as Americans do.  This is Amsterdam, where the electricity used to power trams and light buildings comes from burning municipal waste. And where people take more trips by bike, than by car.  But Amsterdam has much bigger ambitions still.  

Maurits Gruen is with Amsterdam’s Climate Bureau, and fittingly, his name in Dutch is "Green."

Gruen: "We envision a plan that the municipality of Amsterdam itself will be climate neutral by 2015.  And that the city at large will be reducing its CO2 footprint by 40 percent in 2025."

That’s 40 percent below what the city emitted back in 1990, and down sixty percent from its emissions today.

To put this in perspective, Amsterdam’s self-imposed deadline, 2025 was the year the Bush Administration proposed to merely stop US emissions from going up.  The city has a multi pronged strategy.  By next year, it plans to replace a thousand garbage trucks and other municipal vehicles with vehicles that run on electricity.  Within six years it aims to switch all the light bulbs in streetlamps and municipal buildings to LEDs.  

Gruen says the potential savings are huge, "In the street lighting, it will be over 93 percent so we will almost annihilate the electricity consumption from the lighting in the streets, and the same holds true for electricity consumption in the buildings that the government uses."

Old buildings will get new windows and insulation.  And says Gruen, "The new buildings from next year on will be carbon neutral, which means that we will not need any fossil fuel to heat those buildings."

He explains how you make houses carbon neutral: "In the first place, well we have the houses closed to the north and open at the south where the sun’s coming in. Then we collect all the heat by very efficient insulation. We have solar collectors, we have photovoltaic cells."

But to get real savings, the city will need to do much more than showcase state of the art technology.

"It’s about interaction, and not only with early adopted type of people,  but also with normal people living in normal neighborhoods, " says Ger Baron.

Baron is senior project manager at a public-private joint venture called Amsterdam Innovation Motor.  It’s testing energy saving concepts for the mass market, things that will pay for themselves within two or three years.   One pilot program is distributing so called smart meters, that track household energy use, and can cut it by up to a half.  Some US cities testing these as well, but Amsterdam plans to scale up its program really fast.

Baron: "This year we’re going to want to prove it on a one thousand house scale. And after this year we want to role it out to over the 800 thousand houses in the Amsterdam area. And what you see all over the world is that on paper there are all these brilliant plans to develop smart grids, to develop smart homes, and it’s all on paper.  So the big thing is we should just do it."

Joris Jonker is CEO of a company called Home Automation Europe, which makes some of the meters. He says the meters, "... will ask you how much energy you used last year, then it will ask you how much you want to save.  What we’ve found is that just by knowing this information in detail, you can save 10 to 15 percent.  Just by changing your behavior."

You can save more, Jonker says, by adding little adaptor-like plugs to the power chords for each appliance.   Push a button now, and icons pop up on the screen, a refrigerator, TV, washer, even the power adaptor for you mobile phone.  If something is using more energy than it should, its icon turns redder and redder.  The meter even gives you a hard time.  It might say,  'Did you know your TV is on 8 hours a day,' or 'A freezer shouldn’t use that much electricity, so buy a new one or close the door.'

The electric utility providers foot the bill for these and other technologies to make the whole grid smarter, and eventually cheaper to operate.   

Mauritz Gruen of the Climate Bureau says together, the municipality and private companies plan to spend more than a billion dollars on cutting energy use over the next three years, "Very important, I think, is that it’s not only the municipal government, but that this program is really something of the community itself.  Quite a number of business factors in the city got together and they’re trying to figure out in what way they can cooperate with the municipal government in order to secure our future."

Public private partnership leader Ger Baron, says the city is now proceeding even faster than it planned to, to stimulate the local economy in the face of the global recession.  

Baron says Amsterdam’s energy-saving ambitions stretch far beyond the city limits, "We can develop the technology over here to be more energy efficient so other economies like India and China can learn and we can help development it over there as well.  I mean, the country as the Netherlands, 50 million inhabitants will not make the difference on a global scale, but we can set an example and I think we are very keen to that."

Marits Gruen, of the city’s climate bureau says Amsterdam feels a special sense of urgency, "Amsterdam is situated below sea level, and we are very much aware that we need to do something against global warming because otherwise we won’t be there."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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