The Netherlands as an environmental case study

Eleanor Shield

Eleanor Shield

My work experience with Grain has shown me the importance of benchmarking with competitors and peers for sustainability improvement, highlighting case studies and best practices. Likewise, on a family cycling holiday in the Netherlands earlier in the summer, I was struck by the some of the country’s environmental successes.

Parked bikes lining a canal in Elsberg

Green transport: cycling infrastructure and culture

We were always on a cycle path completely separate to roads with higher speed limits, or on red-tarmacked or red-brick-paved side lanes. The Netherlands has 35,000 kilometres of bicycle lanes — a quarter of the entire road network. Cars were considerate, there were abundant bike parking facilities, we had our own traffic lights at junctions, and the landscape was helpfully flat. So it was no surprise to discover the high use of cycling as a daily mode of transport: the 17 million inhabitants of the Netherlands have an impressive 22 million bicycles. The environmental benefits of cycling are clear: if we all cycled like the Dutch, CO2 emissions would drop by 690 million tonnes, equivalent to the entire carbon footprint of UK or Australia.

Before and after the Afsluitdijk

The Afsluitdijk dike and its environmental impacts

At the open-air Zuiderzee Museum, I learned how the threat of storms and flooding, with the Flood of 1916 as the turning point, instigated the building of the Afsluitdijk dike. This transformed the Zuiderzee, a bay in the North Sea, into IJsselmeer (Lake IJssel in English). The dike was completed in 1932, with the water in the new IJsselmeer turning from salty to fresh in two years from the river influx.

Rising sea levels due to climate change mean the dike now needs to be adapted. As more water will need to be discharged in future, draining sluices are being added, plus two large pumping stations that will take over if the level in the Wadden Sea is too high for natural drainage through the sluices. So the dike can cope with high waves that may spill over, it’s being strengthened with concrete blocks and two locks are being built. A fish migration river connecting the IJsselmeer and the Wadden Sea is being built to allow millions of fish that need both fresh and saltwater to move freely. To minimise environmental impact of these developments, the energy for the new pumping stations is generated by solar panels around the dike and extraction of energy from the interaction between fresh and salt water is being developed.

Land reclamation and its environmental impact

Seventeen per cent of the Netherlands’ land area is reclaimed. First, a dike is built and then water is drained by submersible pumps, like Archimedes’ screws or (in the past) windmills, leaving lowlands called polders. Reclamation creates more land for housing and agriculture but it comes with significant environmental drawbacks. Wetlands, which can store more carbon than rainforests, help prevent flooding and offer protection against droughts. Their removal reduces habitats and biodiversity. Furthermore, the polders that replace them can increase flood risks by altering the capacity of natural floodplains to absorb excess water.

A wind farm off the North Sea Coast
A windmill at the Zuiderzee Museum

Wind energy

The Netherlands’ famous, numerous windmills have historical importance as an alternative to water-driven mills, often used for draining the polders. I’d often see a horizon lined with wind turbines, especially along the coast, and in 2022 the wind turbines provided the Netherlands with 18% of its electricity demand. I was impressed to discover that the Windpark Fryslân in the IJsselmeer is the largest not-at-sea offshore wind farm in the world.

A stork in Giethoorn — a village with many canals, thus an ideal habitat for storks
A stork on a nesting pole in Giethoorn

Conservation of storks

Storks are also characteristic of the Dutch landscape. The nesting poles the locals have put up in Giethoorn were part of the conservation of storks that started more than 50 years ago. This was because storks nearly died out in the first half of the 1900s due to changes in agricultural methods, urbanisation, and more dangerous migration routes, causing the number of breeding pairs in 1969 to be 4% that of 1910. The reintroduction project has been a great success, now with 1,550 breeding pairs, paving the way for the stork population to self-regulate in future.

It was a delight to experience firsthand the Dutch approach to sustainability. I came back to the UK energised, ready for my work experience with Grain, and inspired to dive in to local sustainability initiatives, like involvement with Sustainable Amersham.

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