Marsh dweller teaches the world about consensus

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Adapting to changing conditions is what the Dutch have been doing for centuries. The rest of the world is eager to know how they do that, because adaptability is crucial in the fight against climate change. So it’s no wonder that Dutch climate ambassador Marcel Beukeboom is a popular guest at international conferences.

Marcel was invited to Circl during the Week of the Circular Economy. He’s often asked what a climate ambassador does, and he usually uses this question to introduce himself. That’s what he did this morning at the ‘chairman’s breakfast’ of the annual conference of the Urban Land Institute, where participants talked about making cities sustainable. Afterwards, he gave an interview to Reuters on what the Netherlands is doing on the sustainability front. Then on to Circl, where he told bank employees and business people what a climate ambassador does. “Well, this is what I do when I’m in the Netherlands.”

Marcel is the figurehead of Dutch climate policy and helps implement it. “My job description is, in fact, the Paris climate agreement,” he explains to the audience in Circl. “And as bankers, you know better than anyone else that money talks. If we really want change, we’re going to have to ‘green’ money flows. Otherwise we won’t live up to the two other important goals of the Paris agreement – limiting the global rise in temperature and adapting to rapidly changing conditions. That’s why I spend a lot of time at Amsterdam’s Zuidas business district and the Dutch central bank. I talk about greening money flows, the third main goal of the Paris climate agreement.”

Nobody can do this on their own

After Paris, we entered the ‘how?’ phase, says Marcel. He can’t do it on his own, the signers of the agreement can’t do it on their own, nobody can do it on their own. All economic sectors touched by climate change have to buckle down and make it happen. That includes defence, education, healthcare – and the financial sector, too. “Climate change isn’t actually anything tangible,” Marcel explains. “You can’t pick it up in your hands. So we have to make it concrete by connecting it to concrete themes. And, as I said, in the financial sector that’s about greening money flows. But there, too, the question is how to do that.”

So, how can we do that? Marcel: “We talked to investors this morning about the real estate sector, which is responsible for forty per cent of carbon emissions worldwide. In the Netherlands, we know that buildings can exist for hundreds of years. This means that we cannot – and don’t want to – tear down and rebuild every building, but that we can modify them and we can think about totally new concepts. Circl is a perfect example of this.”

Marcel is obviously interested in how materials are used, but Circl’s social aspect also really appeals to him. “This building was built by people who made a virtue of necessity and who inspired each other. That’s something we need to do more of, now that the limits of growth are in sight.”

Marshland

People have an enormous ability to adapt, of course. So we should be able to cleverly navigate adapting to a changing climate, he confirms. “But large parts of the world lack the knowledge to do so. The Dutch, however, have been adapting in this marshland we call home for the past six hundred years. By sharing its knowledge, the Netherlands could make a valuable contribution to the rest of the world.”

That could happen later this year, for example, when the Climate Adaptation Summit in Amsterdam will address this goal. A month later, the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Glasgow to explore how we can take the next step. But, Marcel acknowledges, it’s still tricky. “The agreements made in Paris aren’t easy. They’re collective goals that will have to be met voluntarily by individual contributions. A lawyer will think, ‘That’s never going to work.’ For a diplomat, though, it’s just another day at the office.”

Role model

“I often use the words ‘polder consensus model’ when I’m outside the Netherlands and give the example of the Dutch climate accord. You might say that you’ll get nowhere fast with all that consensus talk. True, it takes time, but we’ve raised the bar here and we’ve made clear agreements. Thanks to that, other countries see us as a role model.”

What do you see happening outside the Netherlands? “In Poland, for instance, a lot of people are still working in coal mines. The whole energy system there runs largely on coal, and some pensions are even paid out in coal. Experiences with the polder model could help. Because however you look at it, changing this is going to cost money.”

Hitting home

And that brings us to another thorny issue: who’s going to pay for that? “It’s going to cost money, but not so much that we’ll all be living hand to mouth, like some sceptics would have us believe. Still, it’s been calculated that if we don’t act now the eventual bill will be seven times as high. In the national budget, total annual costs for the Dutch climate policy are around 3.6 billion euros. The costs for healthcare and social security are both upwards of 80 billion euros. But that number hits home, of course, and it makes the cost real for people. If you have to become more sustainable and the government won’t pay for everything, you have a role yourself. That’s the social tension involved in this effort.”

So that’s the playing field in which Marcel’s work as a policymaker takes place and which we, as professionals in the financial sector, increasingly have to deal with. What does this mean? “That you’ll have to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Are we making the right investments, are the processes we’re creating sustainable? Will I get a return on my investment? Can I, in my role, make a difference? Will this work in the long run? Don’t wait for the government or business to take action; it won’t happen fast enough.”

Just do it

So, just do it – just make sustainability happen? “Yes, that’s what the pioneers in this field are already doing. And it’s really inspiring. You’re not bound by what you’ve always done in the past, you can also think about new initiatives. You’ll see that, once you get down to it, you’ll be given the time and opportunity to do this, in every organisation. That, too, is sustainability – making sure your company will still be around in forty years.”

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