Writer, speaker and advisor on Europe

Author: Joop Hazenberg

New book: 30 climate actions to save the world

Climate change is real and a growing problem, evolving into an existential crisis for the world if we do not act fast. I am deeply worried about the way we…

Climate change is real and a growing problem, evolving into an existential crisis for the world if we do not act fast. I am deeply worried about the way we treat our planet and atmosphere. It simply is the most urgent topic of our time. This is why my new book is all about climate change, in two ways. I am ringing the alarm bell as loud as I can. But I also explain how we, through collective action of consumers, governments and businesses, can actually solve the climate crisis and make the world a better place to live.

As the book is in Dutch only (for the moment), let me give you a brief overview of the main points.

What is going wrong

First, let’s zoom in on the crisis. Things are going completely in the wrong direction right now. Despite the fact that we have been talking about climate change for decades, the problem is getting bigger every day. In the past 30 years, we have emitted more greenhouse gases than in the previous 200 years:

As a result, global temperatures and sea levels are rising faster and faster at the moment. If we do not intervene strongly in the next ten years, humanity is toast. This sounds dramatic, but it is. Climate change is an undeniable fact. We are truly beyond the pointless debate as to whether or not global warming is caused by humans. We must not close our eyes to a world which (sometimes literally) is on fire.

On the other hand, rescue is near due to exciting technological developments and the changing behavior of citizens. Almost all solutions are now within reach and they are affordable. That was not the case five years ago. Renewable energy is now often cheaper than energy from fossil fuels. In ten years’ time Airbus will come with planes that fly on clean hydrogen. McDonald’s has started to sell meatless burgers. And also in recent news: one in five new cars in Europe are fully or partially electric.

But the question is whether all of this good news will be enough (the answer: it isn’t). The temperature on Earth has already risen by more than one degree and we are now experiencing the first dramatic consequences. It’s a disaster that happens in slow motion. Humanity’s eight hottest years were the past ten years, as we can see from this graph. 2020 was the hottest year ever, together with 2016.

A few examples will make the consequences concrete. In the summer of 2018, it became thirty degrees in Northern Finland (we are talking about the Arctic Circle, mind you). Reindeer and Finns jointly took refreshing baths in rivers and lakes.

In Australia, just before the corona crisis broke out early 2020, scorching wildfires of an apocalyptic scale left billions of animals dead and vast areas devastated. The images of charred koalas and tourists fleeing into the sea will not easily be forgotten.

East Africa, meanwhile, was ravaged by a period of prolonged drought and a plague of locusts of biblical proportions, both with a clear link to climate change. Billions of locusts destroyed huge agricultural areas in a matter of weeks. The last time such a plague occurred was 25 years ago, but scientists predict that this will happen more often due to climate change.

A young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children many of whom died of malnutrition. Dadaab refugee camp.

And this is just the beginning of a huge crisis unfolding. If we do not act now, we will end up in a similar situation as that of the corona crisis: we take measures, but every time too late, and then we can only do damage control. The evidence is staring us in the face. All relevant graphs and statistics are deep in the red, like this one for the amount of CO2 over the past 800,000 years. Do you see that dotted line on the far right, which is way above average? Humanity alone is responsible for a very scary jump of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

This is today. But what will the future bring? In a world that warms by two degrees, a point that we will reach within the next three decades, the amount of extreme weather events will increase significantly. Some land regions and parts of the ocean are warming so much that entire ecosystems can be destroyed. Coral reefs will die all over the world, which is disastrous for biodiversity as a quarter of marine life resides there. Hundreds of millions of people will experience heat waves above 60 (!) degrees every year. Water and food supplies are coming under enormous pressure. And so on.

That is why at the all-important Paris Climate Summit in 2015, the world agreed to limit global warming to two degrees (with an extra effort to limit to 1.5 degrees if possible). I was there because at that time I worked for a group of climate NGOs, Climate Action Network Europe. It was a truly special moment.

But since then, we have not started to bend the emissions curves downward, on the contrary – emissions have only gone up. They only went down in 2020 because of the coronacrisis, which paralysed half of the world economy and that still only resulted in around seven percent less emissions.

Even if all the Paris pledges of countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions were fulfilled, global temperatures will rise three to four degrees by the end of the century. If that happens, climate experts warn that we are entering uncharted territory.

The earth has not been so warm in the last three million years. Back then, in the Pliocene Epoch, trees were growing on Antarctica and worldwide sea levels were 25 meters higher. That in itself is already a worrying prospect. But if global warming goes beyond two degrees, the self-regulating system of the world’s biosphere and climate will run wild. Lots of ‘positive feedback loops’ will then exacerbate climate change, for example because most ice on Earth melts and the poles and glaciers no longer reflect sunlight back into space. Together with other feedback loops, our planet could be getting five, six, eight degrees hotter. That’s end of our story, for humankind as well as for our nature as we know it. It’s that simple.

What we can do to solve the climate crisis

Do not worry: it doesn’t have to come that far. However, drastic collective action in the next few years is needed, which goes further than installing more windmills, recycling plastics and planting trees. The actions are sometimes big, sometimes small, but together they will solve the climate crisis – and ultimately make our lives and our existence better.

As we can see on the graph, emissions have to go down very quickly, for both scenarios (1.5 and 2 degrees warming). In my book, I outline the path to a climate-neutral world by 2050, in which we halve emissions every ten years. It is a path that is technically and politically feasible, especially because of the revolution that is currently taking place in the field of renewable energy. The costs of electricity from solar and wind have fallen so much in the past few years that it is now cheaper than fossil fuels. In the future, this energy will become almost free.

Three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of oil, coal and gas. The diagram makes this clear: energy-consuming applications such as industry, transport, heating buildings and the production of electricity result in tens of gigatons of CO2 and methane emissions every year. The other quarter, and many people don’t know, is from agriculture. Livestock farming in particular is very bad for the environment and the climate.

I will explain all of this in my book, but of course I will also discuss how the world’s energy system can be made sustainable, how we can clean up heavy pollutants such as aviation and shipping, as well as the steel and cement industry. But the focus is on climate actions that we can take now.

Thirty climate actions to save the world

I have identified thirty concrete, useful and sometimes inspiring climate actions: ten of these are for consumers, ten for governments and finally ten for business. Some actions have a small impact, others are bigger, but my main point is that everyone has a role to play, including you and me.

From the consumer perspective, the central idea is that we are going to live, travel, consume and eat in a different way. But we will also need to show citizenship and invest in the future. The actions include switching to renewable energy, renovating your home, limiting your stuff and clothes, buying an electric car (or even better, get rid of the car altogether), avoiding meat and dairy (including cheese), setting a personal flying budget, investing in green companies, limiting the amount of children and engaging with friends and family on climate action.

Governments and political parties need to act too, more than ever. They can intervene in several ways, mainly by intervening in markets and prohibiting certain goods and technologies. Measures include setting a high carbon tax, introducing a flying and meat tax, banning internal combustion engines from 2030 and ending fossil fuel subsidies. But the state can do more, for instance to create a hydrogen economy by structurally overproduce renewable electricity, renovating all houses and buildings and limiting livestock farms.

Finally, businesses have a very important role to play. Hundreds of the world’s largest companies are already committing to become carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050, including for their supply chain as well as switching to 100% renewable energy. They can also greatly reduce energy consumption by energy efficiency measures, help electrify most applications that people and industries use, and further digitalise products and services, make their transport sustainable and encourage homeworking.

I hope that this brief description of the climate crisis – and the way out of it – will stimulate and inspire readers. I explain all actions in my book thoroughly and give more concrete tips. But it should also make people aware of the seriousness of the matter: man-made global warming has the potential to spiral out of control and will make life on Earth dangerous, if not impossible. 

Not all is lost. We can save the world as long as we act now. Christiana Figueres, who led the Paris climate negotiations in 2015, said it well: “In the face of climate change, we all have to be optimistic, not because success is guaranteed but because failure is unthinkable.” Let’s put her words into practice.

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European climate action in 2020 – and beyond

2020 for sure was a disaster year, in which the world has been brought to standstill because of a virus so small, that it cannot be seen – even with…

2020 for sure was a disaster year, in which the world has been brought to standstill because of a virus so small, that it cannot be seen – even with a normal microscope. But in the future, this year may well be regarded as a turning point at which the planet has decidedly steered away from disastrous global warming, onto a path of climate neutrality. And it is Europe, one of the (historically) largest polluters of the atmosphere, that is showing the lead. Much depends however if all the promises put on paper to halt climate change, will be fulfilled. An overview of EU climate action in 2020 (and an outlook to 2021) is appropriate.

The right high-level ambitions are all there. Ursula von der Leyen, the new EU Commission president, has made climate her absolute spearhead with the announcement of the European Green Deal in December 2019. It is an ambitious and holistic programme without precedent. In March 2020, the Commission published its proposal for the first European Climate Law, which aims to put into legislation that Europe’s economy and society have to become climate-neutral by 2050. Almost nowhere in the world exist such legally binding and stringent climate laws, except for maybe the UK. The entire European economy must become more sustainable and transform into a circular economy, while almost the entire energy supply will run on wind, solar and hydrogen. Biodiversity in Europe will also be fully restored and agriculture made more sustainable. This action plan will require at least EUR 260 billion per year in additional investment until 2040.

New climate target for 2030

The climate law was just the start of a long string of legislative and non-legislative actions. An obvious and urgent one was to boost the climate ambitions for the next decade, as the world only has a few years left to severely cut emissions or otherwise face a future in which the global temperature goes up with more than two degrees celsius. This is why the Commission proposed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels). The European Parliament had a big internal fight over this goal. More conservative, pro-industry parties found this goal too high and damaging for the European economy, while progressives and greens were pushing for an even higher target of 65% reduction. The same conundrum took place between the EU member states, notably between the western and eastern parts of the EU. Countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania are still heavily reliant on coal and nuclear energy and they oppose a quick energy transition. 

In 2019, the actual figure of greenhouse gas reductions in the EU was only 24%, so what was basically on the negotiation table was no less than a complete overhaul of Europe’s economy in a mere whisper of time. To the surprise of many, in December the European Council succeeded to support the original 55% target of the Commission. This clears the way for the three EU institutions to come to a final agreement on the revised 2030 target, probably early 2021. 

Two important developments will make the ambitious climate target more feasible. First, the coronacrisis. When covid-19 hit Europe, it was feared that the virus would push climate down on the political agenda and that governments would direct their funds to saving the economy, rather than investing in climate action. But thanks to continued pressure from the Commission and several progressive EU Member States, the opposite has happened. The EU has established a whopping 750 billion euro ‘NextGenerationEU’ recovery fund to overcome the crisis, and up to a third of this fund will be earmarked for climate-friendly investments. Also in the new seven-year budget, funds have been allocated for the transition to a green economy. 

Secondly, the EU is reforming its Emissions Trading System (ETS), which is a complicated system to put a price on carbon pollution. The ETS has never been a real success because the price of the certificates to allow industries to emit CO2, simply was too low. Also many parts of the economy do not fall under the ETS, such as transport. But since 2019, the cost of a carbon permit has steadily risen to 30 euros a tonne, which means that a real incentive now emerges for industries to find carbon-free alternatives to their production or operation. In June 2021 the Commission will propose a new reform of the ETS, in which not only the amount of tradeable certificates will be limited but where the system will now also apply to the shipping and aviation sector. According to experts, a carbon price of 50-100 euros a tonne is needed in order to really push Europe’s industry to decarbonise. 

Circular economy, second chance

The European Green Deal also sets an ambitious roadmap towards a climate-neutral circular economy, where economic growth is decoupled from resource use. In such a form of the economy, materials can be reused over and over again and products can be easily disassembled to allow repairs and a longer lifespan. This is not a new concept, the Commission has been advocating for the ideal of a circular economy for a decade. But it is hard to get rid of the take-make-waste linear economy model that the world is stuck in. Currently, only 12% of materials and raw materials are recycled in Europe, so the circular economy remains an unattainable dream for the time being.

This is why in March 2020, the Commission came up with a new Circular Economy Action Plan, basically using its powers as broker for the EU single market to intervene and make sustainable products the new golden standard. There are dozens of actions and milestones that the EC will undertake in this field in the next few years, notably to rebuild ‘key product value chains’ such as electronics, packaging, batteries, plastics, fabrics, construction and food. Whereas in the former action plan the measures where ‘regulatory-light’, in the new plan there are a lot of new and revised regulations coming to Europe’s industries. Watch this space as it will attract a lot of policy and advocacy attention in the EU Bubble, from NGOs and research bodies, as well as from trade associations and MEPs. 

The energy transition

As the bulk of manmade greenhouse gas emissions happen because of the usage of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), most focus in the fight against climate change lies on ‘decarbonising’ our economy. In the EU, almost 30% from the emissions come directly from the energy sector and almost a quarter are related to the transport sector (including aviation), whereas most houses and buildings in Europe continue to be heated with gas. 

The way out of this system is fairly simple on paper: we have to ‘electrify’ everything and the use cases that can not be electrified, should switch to ‘green hydrogen’. For the first category, this includes electric vehicles, boats, small airplanes and heat pumps, combined with a strategy to increase energy efficiency across the board. As for the really heavy industry and transport, such as steel and aluminium factories, big planes and ships, the switch to hydrogen or synthetic fuels is a must. 

Again, here is nothing new as the EU has had targets for the uptake of renewable electricity and for higher energy efficiency standards for a long time, though they were not mandatory for EU Member States. But the ambition has to be scaled up if the energy transition needs to be completed by 2050. Otherwise we will continue to need coal and gas power plants, as well as nuclear, to cover for the increased demand for electricity. This is especially true for the production of green hydrogen as this has to be done with 100% renewable electricity (instead of natural gas). 

The good news is that the share of renewables in the EU’s energy mix continues to rise, as prices for solar and wind continue to drop. Many EU Member States have announced large-scale deployment plans of both renewable electricity sources, as they are now competitive to (and in many cases cheaper than) electricity made from the burning of coal and gas. But renewables only make 15% of the EU’s energy mix (2018 figures) so the way to a fully decarbonised energy system is still very long. 

Note June 2021 in your calendar as in that month, the Commisison will propose new legislative proposals in this field, including a revision of the Renewable Energy Directive as well as the Efficiency Energy Directive. Advocacy behind and in front of the scenes has already started, for instance in the public consultations that the Commission has launched on both directives (deadline 9 February 2021). 

Farm to Fork

Saving the climate entails more than just getting rid of fossil fuels and decrease the world’s hunger for resources. It is also about making our food system more sustainable. Globally, agriculture is responsible for a quarter of the extra greenhouse gas emissions, for a large part because of livestock breeding. It is also connected to severe degradation of our biodiversity and the environment, as well as air pollution. 

The Commission has therefore launched another set of action plans in May 2020: the ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’ and the revised Biodiversity Strategy. They are in the very heart of the European Green Deal, according to the Commission. The focus on ‘Farm to Fork’ means that farmers in the EU need to halve their use of pesticides, as well as slashing their usage of fertilisers and antibiotics. Also, 25% of Europe’s agricultural land should be dedicated to organic farming by 2030. The Biodiversity Strategy has quite a few shared goals with the farming strategy, restoring degraded ecosystems across the EU and better preserving nature areas. Until now, the EU has missed all its current targets for protecting biodiversity, so this part of the European Green Deal needs to be followed critically. 

Green Dealing in 2021: legislative train at full speed

As in any cycle of the 5-year tenure of the European Commission, the opening year of sweeping statements and bold promises of von der Leyen’s team has come to an end. The next phase of her presidency of the Commission is all about translating the policy goals into technical regulatory language. In 2021 we will see a lot of these efforts being played out, with a string of public consultations, impact assessments, delegated and implementing acts and reviewed directives on the agenda. In EU speak: the legislative train is driving at full speed.

There are also non-legislative initiatives that should be taken into consideration by stakeholders in the Brussels Bubble. The Commission will start organising more events under the umbrella of the European Climate Pact, an attempt to bring together thousands of different organisations, companies and individuals to turn the fight against climate change in Europe into a societal movement. 

In March 2021, the Commission will announce the Green Digital Alliance. The EC is bringing together major leaders of the ICT industry and have them commit to carbon neutrality by 2030, two decades ahead of the headline goal for the economy at large. The companies will also commit to developing a calculator for the enablement effect of digital solutions: IT as an enabler to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the energy transition. The Commission regards the green and digital revolution as a twin revolution in which one cannot do without the other, and wants companies to take the lead.

Finally, the UN will host another climate summit, COP26 in the jargon, November 2021 in Glasgow. COP26 was scheduled for 2020 but it was delayed due to the coronacrisis. On the agenda are, amongst other hot topics, increased ambition targets of countries around the world, as the promises they made after the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, are by far not sufficient to limit global warming to two degrees celsius. With a new pro-climate action American President in the White House, COP26 will play a very important role to get the entire world to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050. 

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Nederland: van gidsland tot probleemkind in Europa

Nederland heeft zijn pro-Europese koers ingeruild voor een nationaal-populistische houding. Zo isoleren we onszelf in Brussel.

Nederland heeft zijn pro-Europese koers ingeruild voor een nationaal-populistische houding. Zo isoleren we onszelf in Brussel.

Toen ik in 2005 bij Buitenlandse Zaken werkte, schreef mijn afdeling een notitie over  nationaal belang en Europese politiek. Nogal wat collega’s trokken een vies gezicht toen ze van het project hoorden. ‘Daar doen we niet aan!’ was de teneur. Het nastreven van nationale belangen ging rechtstreeks in tegen de geest van Europese samenwerking, en daar mocht je als père fondateur van de Europese Unie niet eens over nádenken. De notitie verdween uiteindelijk in een diepe lade.

Hoe anders is de realiteit van vandaag. Nederland trapt in Brussel op de rem wanneer het kan. We hebben jarenlang – in ons uppie – het openen van EU-toetredingsonderhandelingen met Servië tegengehouden, en deden dat vorig jaar dunnetjes nog eens over toen de kandidaatstatus van Albanië en Noord-Macedonië voorlag. ‘Een historische vergissing,’ fulmineerde de toenmalige Commissievoorzitter Juncker over die blokkade, die uiteindelijk in maart dit jaar werd geslecht.

Knoflooklanden

Nederlandse politici en diplomaten traineren niet alleen het uitbreidingsproces, maar zijn ook bijzonder bedreven in het bewaken van de centjes. Ten tijde van de eurocrisis ging minister van Financiën Jeroen Dijsselbloem er met gestrekt been in om het nationaal belang te bewaken. ‘Ik kan niet al mijn geld aan drank en vrouwen uitgeven om vervolgens om bijstand te vragen,’ zei hij in 2017 tegen een Duitse krant, wat in Spanje en elders werd compleet verkeerd viel. Gedurende de eurocrisis had de grootste krant van Nederland het trouwens ongeneerd over ‘knoflooklanden’ waar ons zuurverdiende geld heen ging.

Deze cover van Elsevier leidde tot grote woede in Zuid-Europa

Premier Rutte heeft er tegenwoordig bijna lol in om de deur dicht te smijten. Tijdens de laatste onderhandelingsronde voor de nieuwe EU-begroting kwam hij in Brussel opdraven met een linnen tasje. De inhoud: een appel en de nieuwste biografie van Chopin (Rutte speelt piano). ‘Meepraten? Ik denk het niet. Ik zou niet weten waarover.’ De Nederlandse Permanente Vertegenwoordiging twitterde zelfs enthousiast over Ruttes tasje als deel van een startpakket voor zuinige lidstaten. Cruciale bondgenoten zagen er de humor niet van in. Bondskanselier Merkel verweet Rutte ‘kinderlijk gedrag’ en President Macron vond het allemaal maar ‘stuitend.’

De blokkerende opstelling van Nederland in Europa bereikt nu een nieuwe climax vanwege de coronacrisis. Samen met enkele andere (kleine) lidstaten gaan we tekeer tegen plannen om door Covid-19 zwaar getroffen landen als Italië en Spanje bij te staan. Onder geen beding mogen zij geld krijgen om hun economie (en samenleving) overeind te houden, wel kunnen ze geld lenen – met daaraan gekoppelde voorwaarden voor hervorming van de economie. 

Niemand verwoordde de ‘ons-ben-zuunig-houding’ beter dan een vuilnisman, die tijdens een recent werkbezoek van Rutte aan een afvalscheidingsbedrijf riep vooral géén geld naar Spanje en Italië te sturen. De premier aarzelde even, stak toen zijn duim op, en zei: ‘Ik onthoud dit!’ Wie deze uitglijder ook onthoudt, zijn miljoenen Europeanen: het filmpje werd ondertiteld, was openingsnieuws op het Italiaanse en Spaanse 8-uur journaal en ging viraal, onder meer in Brussel en in Spanje. 

Next Generation EU: 750 miljard op tafel

Dit keer krijgt het vermeende slimste, rijkste (denken we zelf) en meest irritante (zo ziet Europa ons) jongetje van de klas echter geen gelijk. Frankrijk is er namelijk in geslaagd Duitsland uit het zuinige kamp te trekken. Vorige week bliezen Macron en Merkel de Frans-Duitse as nieuw leven in door een gezamenlijk voorstel te doen voor een soort coronafonds van 500 miljard euro, dat wordt gekoppeld aan de Europese begroting. Lidstaten zouden hier bijdragen uit krijgen als ze in de coronaproblemen zitten, maar de terugbetaling vindt uiteindelijk gezamenlijk plaats. De Commissie wil hier zelfs 750 miljard euro van maken, als deel van de reddingsoperatie ‘Next Generation EU’.

Nederland gaat, samen met de rest van de ‘vrekkige vier’, onherroepelijk bakzeil halen omdat Merkel 180 graden is gedraaid. Zij was altijd – samen met de rest van Duitsland – tegen coronabonds. Maar nu realiseert ze zich dat er geen alternatief is. ‘Het gaat alleen goed met Duitsland, als het met Europa goed gesteld is,’ zei de Bondskanselier in een historische persconferentie waarin ze het Frans-Duitse plan aankondigde. En ze krijgt voor haar U-turn massale steun uit eigen partij en de rest van Duitsland. Zelfs CDU-havik en oud-Minister van Financiën Wolfgang Schäuble is het met haar eens, hij vindt de Nederlandse houding onbegrijpelijk. ‘Verdere leningen aan lidstaten zijn stenen in plaats van brood.’

Macron en Merkel kondigen gezamenlijk een plan voor een fonds van 500 miljard euro aan.

Natuurlijk is Nederland onwillig omdat vooral Italië disfunctioneel is (politieke polarisatie, gebrek aan economische hervorming, massale schuld) en de populisten in de nek van de middenpartijen hijgen met de verkiezingen van 2021 in het vizier. Maar als het huis van je buren in brand staat en daar geen blusapparaten hangen – ga je dan op hoge toon eisen dat de buren eerst een contract voor brandveiligheid tekenen, voordat je de brandweer doorlaat? Ook als de fik dreigt over te slaan op je eigen huis? 

Want dat is nu iets dat ‘Den Haag’ – of althans de huidige politieke en ambtelijke top – weigert te begrijpen. Gedreig met Nexit van de populaire rechterflank of niet, ons nationaal belang is Europees belang, zeker in tijden van corona. Liefst 71% van de Nederlandse export blijft binnen de Europese interne markt inclusief belangrijke afzetmarkten als Italië en Spanje. En als Zuid-Europa omvalt, eindigt de euro en daarmee de Europese Unie. 

Vroeger had Buitenlandse Zaken, naast de afkeer van nationale belangen, een wijzer motto: ‘Zo dicht mogelijk tegen de Duitsers aan zitten.’ Zeer verstandig gezien de politieke en economische verknooptheid van ons land met de grote buur in het oosten, en actueler dan ooit.

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The long way back

There is nowhere to hide from corona, apart from your living room. And this situation will not end soon.

It is Easter Monday and the streets in Brussels are deserted. Sometimes runners pass by, the occasional car makes it way on empty streets. Litter is dancing in the wind. Windows of houses display rainbows drawn by children, here and there people painted colourful signs on sheets: ‘Tous ensemble!’

This is the new normal. The corona normal. And it is not going to end soon.

So much has been written in the past month about the lockdowns, the spread of the coronavirus and the human tragedies in hospitals and nursing homes, that it is difficult to find words that haven’t been used already, to describe or capture this unprecedented, historical situation. That said, I want to share some thoughts – worries, mainly – about how we can get out of the crisis.

Possessing the truth

For starters, I am really annoyed by all those righteous analyses of people who claim to possess the truth on corona. The underlying argument of their story is always the same: ‘See, I knew this was going to happen because [select a cause] globalisation / neoliberalism / plundering the earth is out of control. We will go into a systemic change from now!’ I even read an article of someone claiming the link between climate change and the coronavirus. But this is a skewed line of thinking and won’t help us get any further.

I am the first to acknowledge that overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, industrial farming and high rates of globalisation all are factors that have made the risk of such a pandemic as we currently experience, very high. Widely shared on social media are speeches of Bill Gates, Barack Obama and other leaders stating that it is not a matter of if but rather when the pandemic will break out. And when it breaks out ‘we’ should be ready.

Clearly the world was not prepared – apart from Eastern Asia, which is a region that is harnessed well against outbreaks of viruses, notably after the SARS crisis of 2003. But for the rest of the world, there are no dams or barriers high enough to stop COVID-19 from spreading.

We found ourselves in a situation that is comparable to a period of grief. First there is denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. I don’t know in which stage the world is now, but my main point is that this is a crisis that will not go away after one, two or even six months of lockdown. Humans are extremely vulnerable to the virus and that just puts everything on hold.

Nowhere to hide

We should abandon the hope that the virus will pass soon. Until there is a vaccine that works there is nowhere to hide, apart from your living room. In the meantime, we should go to into a state of ‘open patience’, as the Dutch philosopher Luuk van Middelaar wrote a few days ago in NRC Handelsblad.

Of course, societies cannot remain on full lockdown for an extended time. For a start, it kills the economy. Nearly 200 million fulltime jobs will be lost in the next three months. In the United States, already the worst coronavirus-hit country in the world, 16 million people lost their jobs in the last three weeks – which equals ten percent of the American labour population. This is pictured in a mind-boggling graph:

Politicians across the globe are now doing the right thing: flatten the curve, stop the virus from spreading so fast that it overwhelms our healthcare systems. We all know this by now, but actually it took a few weeks into the crisis before this strategy became apparent.

But what after the intensive cares are no longer overloaded and infection rates have lowered, while testing has been ramped up? If the lockdown is respected, countries should be able to move into the next phase – a time in which we can relax the lockdown rules.

Surviving the summer (and fall, winter, spring)

In this phase, the virus is more or less under control, but the fire is not extinguished. Flames will flare up regularly, after which society immediately has to follow the stricter regime rules. So schools may open, and close again. People could go back to work: first a few days a week, then fulltime, and then suddenly they have to work from home again. The same applies to shops, cinemas, restaurants, event locations, airports and borders.

In other words, we turn our economies and societies partly on and off, until A) the virus vanishes miraculously or B) a successful vaccine is introduced. (I don’t believe in herd immunity as the third option, because that is years away from now and we don’t know if people are actually immune after contracting COVID-19). The advent of a vaccine will take a year if everything goes well, but it is likely to take longer. Until then, we’re fucked.

It is this phase that I am most worried about, for the simple reason that ‘we’ cannot hold our breath for so long. EU Commission President Von der Leyen says that we have to live with the virus for the time being. But we can’t. It kills us and puts our countries in a state of paralysis.


Apart from the massive discipline needed from citizens, my fears are about the following consequences of such an on-and-off society.

First of all, economic havoc will rain upon our heads in this time. And every week will lead to more damage, more job losses and more financial strain. The IMF is already stating that the world will experience the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression. This year alone, the economies of some countries could contract by more than ten percent (worst-case scenario).

Sectors that are hit extremely hard are in the field of transport, tourism and entertainment. A massive nationalism of airlines seems likely. The automotive industry is on its knees. Revenues of hotels, b&bs and other travel/tourism segments have evaporated. Millions of restaurants, cafes and cinemas across the globe face imminent bankruptcy. Even online food delivery services face a hard time in some markets.

Even if countries keep the economic damage limited, they will suffer from severe disruptions of supply chains, disappearing demand from key trade partners. We already see in the Netherlands a bizarre effect: millions of tulips and roses are destroyed because they cannot be sold. If flowers are not able to being exported, what then for machine parts, chipsets and other semi-finished goods? How long can factories run if supply chains dry up? The internationalisation of the economy has made itself fragile for disruption.

(Speaking of internationalisation, it goes without saying that countries without proper healthcare systems face an unprecedented crisis which will be much worse than here in Europe or Northern America. The hammer will hit hardest in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Read this tough analysis of the New York Times on the drama that will come)

Secondly, finance. As the economy grinds to a halt, states and financial institutions step in, with support measures of trillions of euros. The speed of the intervention of governments is unprecedented and should be welcomed. But debt levels of many countries have not recovered from that previous crisis, the credit crunch of the late 2000s. It seems we in the West will all be like Japan in a matter of months: unsustainable levels of debts for decades to come. Not to mention the huge risk that the ECB and others are taking with the ‘whatever it takes’ policy. Can our financial institutions survive a year of corona crisis, or will they collapse?

I also fear a plethora of knock-on effects as a result of the lockdowns. What will happen with developing economies and nations that now see foreign investments being hold back or even reverted? If one sector goes down, what will happen to the others? Can the 27 EU Member States coordinate their exit strategies, to prevent the Single Market from collapsing? Will budgets for addressing climate change be used for the emergency measures? Can democracies withstand the temptation to keep the current police-state measures in place, once COVID-19 belongs to the past? And what will the crisis do with our minds, our mental health, especially for those that have been hospitalised on the intensive care?

It makes no sense to formulate answers to these difficult questions, as we are at the very beginning of the crisis. But we need to observe, make plans, define strategies to handle the many dilemmas that will come on our plate very soon.


Let’s end with a few signs of hope.

Humanity is everywhere. Not just us as humans, but the way we take care of each other. By and large, societies across the world have wilfully accepted draconic measures that limit their freedoms. And all for the greater good: to save the old and the weak, out of respect for the healthcare workers, in consideration of the collective. Even in our highly individualistic societies that dominate the West, we think of the other. That goes beyond the bear hunts, the daily clapping ceremony, warning strangers to take a bit of distance. It is deeply empathic.

We reflect and reconnect. Suddenly our lives are put on hold. What do we do with all this time? I am only speaking about what I see in my direct environment, so not generalising for everyone, but I note that many people reach out to one another, reconnecting with friends, family and acquaintances, even if it is only online over Zoom, Skype or Hangout. Signs of aggression and impatience in public areas and in traffic are gone, people seem more polite and caring. We slow down and therefore see more details of our area of confinement: flowers in blossom, a renovated house, smiling neighbours. We hear the birds sing, we can sniff the clear and clean air, look at more stars at night. Suddenly people realise that humans are a part of nature and vice versa. We revalue the value of life, of living. Maybe this introspection will end with the eradication of the virus, but it is a wonderful side-effect of this fearful period.

Pharmaceuticals are united in their efforts to beat the virus. China released important characteristics of the virus at a very early stage, which helped kick-off research already in January, gaining critical time. Clinical trials are already starting. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help prepare massive production capacity for seven different coronavirus vaccines, even if only one or two of these will prove useful. Gates will waste billions of euros with this approach and he doesn’t care. Because we don’t have time to wait for vaccine production to start up only after the right one has been found. Better to bet on seven horses at the same time.

Finally, the state is back. In 2011 I wrote a book on the decline of the power of the state (De machteloze staat), but that thesis is (alas partly) no longer valid. We need governments more than ever. They are the only institutions that can protect us (this is the prime reason of existence of states), not just in economical terms but also as a society. And they do this well. In a time of deep polarisation in society, of a dismissal of the added value of governments or democracies, a surge in legitimacy and accountability, is a fantastic and hopefully longterm effect of this historic crisis.

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Europa, treuzel niet met 5G

Dit opiniestuk verscheen op 18 december 2019 in NRC Handelsblad Europa is importeur van digitale diensten en 70 procent van gebruikersdata gaat naar de VS, schrijft Joop Hazenberg. Haal de achterstand…

Dit opiniestuk verscheen op 18 december 2019 in NRC Handelsblad

Europa is importeur van digitale diensten en 70 procent van gebruikersdata gaat naar de VS, schrijft Joop Hazenberg. Haal de achterstand in met een snelle 5G-introductie.

Illustratie Hajo / NRC Handelsblad

Bijna elke week kun je in Brussel naar een 5G-conferentie. Het onderwerp is al jaren niet meer weg te denken van de Europese agenda, en met goed recht. 5G-netwerken hebben de potentie om economie en samenleving naar een hoger plan te brengen, de economie en concurrentiekracht van de EU-lidstaten te verstevigen én de energietransitie te versnellen. 

Maar de laatste tijd komt de opvolger van 4G vooral negatief in het nieuws. Er zijn zorgen over de (staats)veiligheid van de enorme hoeveelheden data die straks over dit hypermoderne netwerk zullen flitsen. Zullen de Chinezen niet meeluisteren via Huawei? Verder rijzen veel vragen over de stralingseffecten van 5G (die grosso modo ongeveer dezelfde zullen zijn als 4G). De stad Brussel, de feitelijke hoofdstad van de Europese Unie, heeft alvast verboden om 5G uit te rollen. „Onze burgers zijn geen proefkonijnen!” zeggen de lokale Brusselse bestuurders met fierheid. 

Verder gaan de cruciale spectrumveilingen voor het mogelijk maken van 5G de verkeerde kant op. Telecombedrijven moeten vergunningen kopen om gebruik te maken van bepaalde frequenties, maar elke lidstaat heeft andere veilingregels en sommige landen zien het nieuwe spectrum puur als melkkoe. Dat komt doordat de vorige Europese Commissie er slechts deels in geslaagd is om telecomregels – en daarmee de interne telecommarkt – te harmoniseren. De Finnen doen het goed en slim en jagen de markt op om 5G zo snel mogelijk in te voeren, terwijl in Duitsland en Italië de telecomoperatoren vele miljarden euro’s hebben moeten ophoesten om de felbegeerde radiofrequenties te bemachtigen. In Nederland beginnen de veilingen volgend jaar en voor belangrijke spectrumbanden zoals 3,5 gigahertz, zelfs pas in 2022.

Ik maak me veel zorgen over het getreuzel en de twijfels rond 5G. Ten eerste omdat een trage uitrol van dit nieuwe netwerk de fragiele Europese economie niet zal verstevigen. En ten tweede omdat politici en beleidsmakers onvoldoende oog hebben voor de snoeiharde geopolitiek waarmee 5G en de digitale revolutie is omgeven. 

Sinds ik in 2016 in de telecomindustrie ben gaan werken, ben ik werkelijk doodgegooid met rapporten, analyses en discussies over wat 5G allemaal kan betekenen voor economie en samenleving. Dat is voor een deel natuurlijk hype, maar de kenmerken van 5G maken duidelijk dat de potentie enorm is. Het 5G-netwerk wordt een soort Zwitsers zakmes dat tegelijkertijd een enorme hoeveelheid functies en datastromen kan verwerken. 

Miljarden apparaten te verbinden

Ja, 5G zal het internet op uw telefoon nog sneller maken, maar het gaat vooral om industriële toepassingen waar het netwerk als een echte game changer werkt. Tegen 2025 hebben we 25 miljard ‘slimme’ apparaten op de wereld, waarvan er vele moeten worden verbonden met 5G. Denk aan geavanceerde robots op de werkvloer, zelfrijdende auto’s, miljoenen sensoren in stedelijke omgevingen en tienduizenden drones voor het leveren van pakketten of zelfs vervoeren van mensen.

Deze toekomst staat voor de deur en heet de vierde industriële revolutie. Ook kunstmatige intelligentie zal een belangrijke bouwsteen voor die revolutie zijn, maar 5G zal uiteindelijk als een soort smart grid functioneren; om al die miljarden apparaten, al dan niet met kunstmatige intelligentie, te verbinden en ze op een intelligente manier met elkaar te laten praten. 

In onze toekomstige omgeving wordt alles ‘slim’. Van autonoom vervoer tot decentrale energiegrids die de batterijen van elektrische auto’s ’s nachts gebruiken om het energiesysteem stabiel te houden. Van volautomatische landbouw waarbij nog geen druppel gif wordt verspild (of te veel stikstof uitgestoten), tot vergaderingen met hologrammen in plaats van videoconferenties. Zonder 5G kun je veel van deze innovaties op je buik schrijven.

De mogelijkheden van 5G worden uiteraard niet alleen in Europa onder de loep genomen. Er is wereldwijd een race aan de gang om 5G-netwerken als eerste in te voeren. Niet verrassend ligt Oost-Azië voorop, gevolgd door de VS. De EU komt daarachteraan. 

Europa achterop

Dat is een voortzetting van een trend. Europa was ook veel te laat met de uitrol van 4G, heeft nauwelijks IT-bedrijven die meespelen op wereldniveau, en blijft een netto-importeur van digitale diensten. Intussen gaat 70 procent van de persoonlijke data van Europese burgers direct naar bedrijven in de VS. We reageren halfslachtig en verdeeld op president Trump die een Koude Oorlog tegen Huawei en China voert.

En het laatste nieuws is dat Europese telecombedrijven Amerikaanse megabedrijven als Microsoft en Amazon het softwaregedeelte van 5G laten runnen. Gezien de enorme hoeveelheid data die 5G-netwerken gaan verwerken, is het duidelijk waar de toegevoegde waarde – en de gevoeligheid – ligt. Niet in de zendmasten in uw buurt of de glasvezelkabels onder de grond.

De nieuwe Europese Commissie heeft terecht een topprioriteit gemaakt van de Europese digitale soevereiniteit. We worden op dit moment echt weggespeeld en hebben behoefte aan een volwaardige digitale interne markt, met digitale Europese kampioenen die hun mannetje kunnen staan. 

Het is tijd voor de EU-lidstaten om wakker te worden. Duitsland en Frankrijk hebben alvast een project gelanceerd voor een Europese clouddienst. Nu nog een krachtige, gedeelde AI-strategie en een snelle introductie van 5G, en wie weet missen we dit keer dan niet de digitale boot. 

Joop Hazenberg is schrijver van het boek Technologie de baas.

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What is the European Green Deal?

On 11 December, the European Commission presented the long-awaited European Green Deal in a press conference and in a plenary session at the European Parliament. The Commission calls it ‘Europe’s man on…

On 11 December, the European Commission presented the long-awaited European Green Deal in a press conference and in a plenary session at the European Parliament. The Commission calls it ‘Europe’s man on the moon’ moment. For President Von der Leyen, climate forms the very heart of her political agenda for the next five years. “70 years ago, Europe invested in coal and steel. Now we are investing in renewables and algorithms. This is the core of the European Green Deal.”

I went through the whole document and it is a well thought-through piece of work. The Commission really covers all aspects in its strategy to make Europe as climate friendly as possible. From a strong push for the energy transition to massive reforestation plans and halting biodiversity, from sustainable farming to recycling of electronic waste – all the right measures are there.

Really groundbreaking is that the EU will enshrine in law the target of becoming (the first) climate-neutral continent by 2050. This is at least the ambition of the Commission, now supported by 26 of the 28 EU Member States (the UK will be out by January, and Poland refuses to budge, protecting its very large coal industry).

Whether they are actually realistic, remains to be seen. Decarbonising the energy system is – with current technology choices available – impossible. ‘Clean steel’ production by 2030? Forget it. Realising the circular economy? With only 12% of materials recycled in Europe, this is a paper dream. In the meantime, NGOs are unhappy (“it doesn’t go far enough”) and richer and poorer EU Member States may be split over the measures. Not to mention, what do to with nuclear energy.

Overview of actions

The package consists of 50 actions for 2050.  The key ones can be divided into various categories.

The hard-core political goals and actions: 

  • Europe climate-neutral by 2050, enshrined in law –> proposal for law in March 2020
  • 50/55% CO2 reduction by 2030 –> proposal to be presented by Summer 2020
  • Reform of ETS (Emissions Trading System) + carbon border tax
  • Mechanism for ‘just transition’ worth 100 billion euro (to get central EU Member States to accept the 2050 target)
  • Decarbonising the energy system – supplying clean, affordable and secure energy

Systemic reform of Europe’s economy (and society)

  • EU industrial strategy to address twin challenge of green and digital transformation –> adopted in March 2020
  • 1 million extra charging poles for EVs by 2025
  • Doubling of speed of renovating buildings and increasing energy efficiency
  • Investment plan by early 2020, EIB to become green investment bank
  • Shift to sustainable and smart mobility
  • Smart infrastructure and sector integration
  • European Climate Pact to focus on three ways to engage with the public on climate action –> March 2020 announced

Realisation of the circular economy

  • New circular economy action plan (the old one wasn’t effective), with sustainable products policy for circular design
  • ‘Right to repair’ for consumers, curbing the built-in obsolescence of devices, in particular for electronics
  • Economic growth decoupled from resource use
  • Development of lead markets in Europe for climate neutral and circular products
  • Preserving and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Massive reforestation of land in Europe
  • From ‘Farm to Fork’: a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system
  • End green washing of products and services by taking (non-)regulatory measures

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