In many respects, the Netherlands is a prosperous country, where public health, average incomes and education levels all have increased considerably since the Second World War. People trust each other and trust national institutions. From a sustainable development perspective, attention needs to be directed towards areas of employment and an ageing population, knowledge, and social cohesion. However, the major ‘Concerns for Tomorrow’ are environmentally oriented. Especially, the problems of climate change and biodiversity are persistent, because solutions require an international approach.
Biggest sustainability issues require international approach
The Netherlands is doing well in many domains
Average income, public health and education levels have increased, significantly, since the middle of last century. Furthermore, the Dutch people have confidence, in each other and in national institutions. Dutch companies have built up a large store of knowledge and have a productive labour force at their disposal. The quality of soil, water and air have improved markedly in recent decades, although – as a consequence of high population density – nature and human health have suffered considerable damage, compared with the rest of Europe. The overall positive trends constitute a strong foundation for welfare and sustainability in the Netherlands. However, there are also issues of concern.
Climate and biodiversity are the main concerns
De largest sustainability problems are climate change and biodiversity loss. Although it is technically possible to limit climate problems by keeping global temperature increases to a maximum of two degrees, until now, it has proven impossible to achieve the global agreements required to realise this. Within the Netherlands there are opportunities for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the built-up areas. Only 15 per cent of the original biodiversity has remained. In addition, the Netherlands uses a relatively large share of natural resources of other countries. An increase in agricultural productivity across the world would provide possibilities for decreasing problems regarding poverty, food and biodiversity. Conservation of tropical forests would also be a positive contribution to the solution to the climate problem, preventing forests (with the CO2 they store) from being exploited and cut down. Technology alone cannot stop the loss of biodiversity. Reduced meat consumption would also contribute, although an opposite trend is emerging as, especially in developing countries, people are eating more and more meat. Together with focused protection of tropical nature, these measures would add positively to climate policy.
Attention should be focused on employment and an ageing population, knowledge, and social cohesion
On a national scale, points of particular interest are connected with employment and an ageing population, knowledge, and social cohesion. The increasing ageing Dutch population is putting more pressure on the potential labour supply, participation rates and financial means. Investing in knowledge and increasing participation of women, older people and ethnic minorities in the labour force could compensate for this. For labour productivity in the long term, a well-functioning education system and active private sector with innovation strategies are essential. Although there are no signs of the Dutch knowledge economy performing systematically worse, there are concerns about drop-out rates, lack of excellence, teacher shortages, quality of education, and cooperation between universities and the business sector.
In spite of the high level of confidence Dutch people have in each other and in national institutions, they are concerned about future social cohesion. A large percentage of the population perceives tensions between ethnic groups, although most of them think that integration problems are mainly a temporary phenomenon. The degree of social cohesion is influenced by socioeconomic inequality. In important societal domains of participation and income, therefore, women, ethnic minorities and low-educated people are at a disadvantage.
Sustainability policy requires dealing with trade-offs
Sustainability policy is about making choices, given the scarce means that we have at our disposal.
More of one thing often implies less of another. This means that trade-offs between ‘here and now’ and ‘elsewhere and later’ come into play. Opposite the damage to climate and biodiversity, there is a growing material welfare. The benefits are often for the present generation and the rich countries, with the costs moved to elsewhere and later in time. Governments are confronted with these tensions, while formulating policies.
Sustainability Monitor for the Netherlands keeps a finger on the pulse
In the Sustainability Monitor for the Netherlands 2009, the concept of sustainable development is further elaborated and made measurable. Starting point for this publication was identification and description of the resources (natural capital, social capital, human capital and economic capital) that are needed for both present and future generations. This monitor presents indicators for 12 sustainability themes. This set of indicators shows whether the Netherlands is moving in the right direction, as far as sustainable development is concerned. Furthermore, it provides insight into how the Netherlands performs, compared to other EU countries.
The Monitor is a combined effort
The Sustainability Monitor for the Netherlands is a joint publication by the Statistics Netherlands (CBS), the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP)