Poland is slowly saying goodbye to its reputation as the dirty man of Europe

This is the first part of a series about the measures that Poland is taking against environmental pollution and global warming. Tomorrow, part two will be devoted to the transition to electric buses in public transport.

The sight of the Belchatów brown coal power station is both forbidding and impressive. A huge hole several tens of meters deep and kilometers wide stretches out in front of the power station. The plant spits out thick clouds of smoke day and night. Everything in the hole is dead. Except for the gigantic trucks that are constantly driving back and forth between the quarry and the power station. The area around Belchatów is regularly shrouded in mist and the smell around the power station intensifies in winter thanks to the numerous households in the area that are still kept warm with old-fashioned multi-burners.

It should come as no surprise that the power station in Belchatów was regularly criticized at the climate summit in Katowice last year. Belchatów is the world’s largest brown coal power station. And it is the greatest, single emitter of carbon dioxide in the EU, with more than 38 million tonnes of CO2 per year. It is also one of the reasons why Poland is often called the dirty man of Europe.

The fact that Poland depends on coal and brown coal for almost 80% of its electricity is a thorn in the side of Brussels. Even worse, it is felt that Warsaw is also not prepared to abandon its dependence on coal. The furthest Poland has been willing to go so far, is to reduce its dependence on coal by roughly 50% by 2040. The government deems anything more than that to be too expensive. Poland therefore has declined to sign the EU protocol on the supply of CO2-neutral energy by 2050. Just as the Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary are also refusing.

The Netherlands emits more CO2 than Poland

This intractable attitude towards Brussels could give the impression that nothing at all is happening in Poland with regard to improving the environment. But that is not true. In a series devoted to environmental and climate measures, Innovation Origins will show that Poland is even ahead of the rest of Europe in some respects.

Read also: Coal Curtain replaces the Iron Curtain

For a start, the figures reveal that we, as The Netherlands, ought to be cautious in our criticism. Because of its high energy consumption per capita, The Netherlands emits more CO2 than Poland does. In 2017, Poland accounted for 319 million tonnes and the Netherlands for 175 million tonnes. In per capita terms, that amounted to 8.4 tonnes of CO2 per Polish person and more than 10 tonnes for one Dutch person. So the situation in Poland is not that dire after all.

When multi-burners are used during winter, nitrogen oxide emissions rise in Polish villages and towns, particularly in the south. Photo Maurits Kuypers

Also, the right-wing populist government PiS party seems to be realizing that doing nothing about climate policy is no longer an option either. For example, the government recently announced that with Michal Kurtyka, a special minister for climate issues has been appointed. While the conservative pro-coal minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski has since vanished from the cabinet.

And last week, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in Parliament: “Conventional energy sources will remain important for our energy system for a long time to come, but the situation is changing. There was a time when we couldn’t afford to invest in renewable energy sources. But now we can’t afford not to invest in them.”

Societal change

But the most important thing is that Polish society is changing. Nature and environmental policies are becoming increasingly important. The most noticeable change over the last few years was the increase in the number of protests against the extremely high levels of fine particles (smog) during winter months.

Last year, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated that 44,000 people in Poland die prematurely from poor air quality every year. Living in Warsaw for a year would be equivalent to smoking 1000 cigarettes. No wonder that the purchase of air masks was one of the biggest sales successes last year.

The response to this criticism is still a little slow at government level. The scheme to replace old multi-burners in houses with new ones is going rather sluggishly. Even though on paper as much as €25 billion has been made available for it.

Smog cities take steps towards banning multi-burners

The situation is different in municipalities and towns. In Krakow (long known as smog city number 1) multi-burners that emit too many fine particles and nitrogen oxide were banned this year. Other cities are also taking steps in this direction. Most experts therefore expect that the problem with the old polluting multi-burners – by far the most important cause of fine particles – should be solved in the not too distant future.

Another reason for optimism about air quality is the rapid deployment of electric buses. According to Solaris Bus & Coach (a local manufacturer of buses and trams from Bolechowo, a suburb in Poznan), there are already 16 cities with battery-operated buses. This is a win-win situation for Poland, as most of the E-buses come from their home country. In addition to Solaris, electric buses are also being manufactured in Poland by Volvo, Scania, MAN and Rafako E-Bus.

The Solaris factory, Photo Maurits Kuypers

Companies for a cleaner environment

Companies aren’t just standing still either. Press agency Reuters reported this month that 20 major companies have signed up to the EU targets for CO2 neutrality by 2050. In defiance of the Warsaw government. Among them are the PKN Orlen refinery and PKO Bank Polski, both state-owned. The Polish subsidiary of the ING Bank has also signed. As have subsidiaries of the French company Orange (telecom) and the German company Innogy (chemistry).

“Of course, we will not achieve the goal of climate neutrality overnight. However, it is important that we take immediate action,” says the Charter of the 20 companies. Deputy Director of ING Bank Śląski Joanna Erdman told Reuters that signing this document is a very natural step for the bank. ING was also one of the first lenders who refused to continue financing new coal projects.

Erdman: “At the moment, the discussion in Poland revolves around whether we ought to endorse the CO2 targets. When it should actually be about how we want to achieve that.”

As I said, this message from companies is slowly but surely beginning to resonate with the government in Warsaw. For instance, after parliamentary elections in October, the energy plan for 2040 has been partially amended in favor of the environment. For one thing, according to the old plans, all onshore windmills were supposed to disappear. That’s because they were considered too unsightly. Now the aim is to keep capacity at about the same level.

Onshore windmills are not very popular in Poland. Photo Expresselblag/Pixabay

Gigawatts on the rise

Warsaw wants to make a decisive leap forward as far as solar energy is concerned. This year, the 1 gigawatt threshold will be exceeded for the first time. A further 15 gigawatts will be needed over the coming 20 years. The VAT on solar panels has been reduced. And an incentive fund of € 235 million has been set up for private individuals as well.

The government foresees slightly slower development when it comes to offshore wind energy. Poland prefers to wait until this technology becomes cheaper before investing heavily in it. Expectations are that this will happen after 2025.

Lastly, Prime Minister Morawiecki sees an important role for “clean” nuclear energy as an alternative to coal. Poland is one of the few countries in Eastern Europe that does not yet have a nuclear power station. That will nevertheless have to change by 2033. Warsaw states that nuclear reactors are an important alternative to coal-fired power stations. This is because they are ‘adaptable’. Which basically means that they can be cranked up at night when the wind isn’t blowing. Or in winter when there is hardly any sun. That will ensure that there is never a shortage of electricity.

Independence from Russia

There is something that plays a role in the background to all these plans for 2040. And that’s the desire to become independent of energy from arch enemy Russia as soon as possible. Alongside nuclear energy, the import of liquid natural gas (LNG) serves as an alternative to Russian coal and gas.

The electricity plan for 2020 and 2040 currently looks like this:

The electricity plan for 2020 and 204020202040
Brown coal8,6 gigawatt3,4 gigawatt
Coal15,6 gigawatt7,6 gigawatt
Gas and cogeneration2,4 gigawatt12,4 gigawatt
Onshore windmills9,5 gigawatt9,8 gigawatt
Offshore windmills08 gigawatt
Solar panels1,3 gigawatt16 gigawatt
Nuclear energy04 gigawatt


High-level French official: “Involve low-income households in the energy transition”

The French Government, like the other EU Member States, is faced with the complex task of involving the entire population in the process of making the French economy climate neutral by 2050. As it turns out, there are concerns about this. “It’s not just about devising the very best new renewable energy technology,” said Laurent Michel, Director General of the French Ministry of Ecology and Solidarity, at InnoEnergy’s conference on innovative energy start-ups held in Paris last week.

Low incomes

It is very important that scientists invent new and better technology, Michel pointed out. For example, think of better batteries for electric cars that will have a greater range as a result. “But this should be accessible to all low-income households as well.”

“They must also be able to participate in the energy transition. The transition to products that use renewable energy will have the greatest impact on them.” After all, they have very little money to spare and therefore run the risk of running into problems if they have to buy new appliances that they cannot afford. At the same time, subsidies for innovative energy applications are paid out of the tax revenue that they themselves contribute to.

That this paradox exists is obvious, even if the French senior official did not explicitly refer to it.

Millions for energy start-ups

As is the case with the other European member states, France has prepared a roadmap to meet the EU’s 2030 target. Each EU member state must emit 45% less CO2 than it does at present. All economic processes must be free of CO2 emissions by 2050. This task requires a major upheaval of the industry. In France, this industry is predominantly based on energy from fossil and nuclear sources. France will have to make the switch to the production of renewable energy. The same applies to French households.

According to the French climate change official, the government is committed to subsidizing start-ups that are developing forms for renewable energy generation or energy conservation. Many millions are being made available for this. In the so-named PPE plan, launched at the beginning of this year, the French Government promised to double the production of renewable energy within 10 years. Wind and solar energy will be used first and foremost for this purpose. The country also wants to close four to six nuclear power stations. France emits relatively little CO2 within Europe, mainly due to the large use of nuclear power stations. Several of these are outdated.

Sociological framework

Nevertheless, the aim is for everyone to be able to benefit from this, Michel said. “It is important for the state to develop a sociological framework whereby all French citizens will be able to participate”.

An initial condition is that French citizens first accept that the transition will actually take place. Otherwise, they will not take part. “That’s a challenge,” according to Michel. But once that has been achieved, our citizens must be given the opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to do so. Which means that if they want to recycle plastic so as to conserve raw materials and energy, they need to be able to do that somewhere. That’s what the French government must do when it comes to guiding society.

Call for proposals

The goal is for French buildings to undergo thorough renovations which will drastically cut down on their energy consumption, Michel states. Transport must be innovated. Engines should run as much as possible on electricity and hydrogen. In his view, this also applies to heavy trucks and other industrial transport.

Start-up entrepreneurs in France who have come up with ideas for this are able to count on subsidies from the French state. “A call for proposals was issued in September for this,” Michel says.

Director-General Laurent Michel of the French Ministry of Ecology and Solidarity Photo: InnoEnergy

German climate accord too soft to push for technological innovation

It was cynicism that prevailed in recent days during the debate on the German climate deal (see summary of the deal below). It is striking that it is not only the usual suspects, such as environmental organizations and activists, who are labeling the agreement too soft. This criticism has also been voiced by scientists and economists.

According to the critics, the Climate Accord is a nice try, but it does not go far enough. It is cow towing to voters and industry. The coal industry is not being blocked at all. The transition to electric vehicles is not getting underway. There are too few incentives for industry and agriculture to reduce their CO2 emissions. And … and … and …

“This is a missed opportunity,” says energy expert Claudia Kemfert of the DIW economic institute in Berlin. According to her, the whole deal needs to be tightened up on all fronts. “If that doesn’t happen, Germany will never achieve its CO2 targets for 2030,” she tells Innovation Origins.

Professor Claudia Kemfert from the DIW Institute in Berlin in an old (decommissioned) coal-operated power station. Photo DIW

For example, Kemfert would like to see at least as much excise duty paid on diesel as there is on petrol. In one fell swoop, this would yield €8 billion, which could be put to good use as an investment in the railways and charging stations for electric vehicles. “Surely it is plain madness that some fossil fuels are still being subsidized.” Another blunder is the stricter regulations for onshore wind turbines. “As a consequence, the potential from further development of wind energy will be marginalized.”

But climate experts are most disappointed about the introduction of a CO2 tax, which is also very much a controversial issue in the Netherlands as well. The fact that Berlin is introducing this type of tax is considered by almost everyone to be commendable and sensible. “But if petrol becomes 3 cents more expensive in 2021 as a result of this tax, it won’t change the behavior of motorists”, says a cynical Constantin Zerger from the German environmental action group DUH in a reaction to a press release. “That’s even less than the daily fluctuations at the petrol pump.”

According to Kemfert, Berlin is focusing too much on the short term. The governing parties SPD, CDU and CSU are terrified that voters are turning to populist parties such as the AfD and therefore prefer to take measures that will not be as painful. A good example is the compensation that commuters receive for the CO2 tax. “How on earth do you think you can change anything that way,” Kemfert wonders.

Anders Levermann from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research. Photo PIK A

Anders Levermann from the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) shares this view. “This government proposal is a good example of a policy failure,” he said to the German newspaper Der Spiegel. Like many other scientists, he believes that the CO2 tax should be raised substantially. This is the best and most cost-efficient way to make the transition from polluting technologies and fuels to clean ones.

Levermann: “If we want to achieve the Paris climate targets, we need a tax of at least 35 euros per tonne. Preferably more. But the Federal Government is starting with €10!” That is nowhere near enough to reduce Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from 866 million tonnes to the 563 million tonnes that was agreed to in Paris.

Is there nothing positive about the climate accord? Sure there is. The direction that is being taken with the CO2 tax. Climatologists hope that things will go the same way as they did with the introduction of excise duty on petrol. There was a lot of resistance to this at first. Yet this form of taxation has now become widely accepted. The same thing should happen with the CO2 tax, due in part to how some of this revenue was returned to the public,.

One of the aspects of the Climate Accord is that wind turbines will only be allowed to be built far away from houses. As a result, the potential area where windmills may still be built will be reduced by 50%. Photo Pixabay

The most important points in the German Climate Accord are summarized as follows:

  1. CO2 tax
    The Berlin government wants to introduce fixed CO2 prices for the transport sector and energy consumption in buildings by 2021. This will be done in the form of certificates which will be sold to companies who will pass on the costs to motorists, for example. The CO2 tax will gradually be increased. A start will be made in 2021 with €10 per tonne of CO2. In 2022 this will be €20, until the price reaches €35 in 2025. If you translate that into the price of petrol, in 2021 it will amount to an additional 3 cents and in 2025 it will be 12 cents. An auction system for CO2 certificates with a minimum price of €35 and a maximum of €60 is planned from 2026 onward.
  2. More stringent CO2 emission checks                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Each year, an annual assessment will be made of the extent to which CO2 emissions have been reduced in various sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and transport. If these are not enough, the relevant ministry must come up with additional measures within three months.
  3. Tax
    As of 2021, motor vehicle taxes for cars with high CO2 emissions will increase. There will also be a higher sales premium for electric vehicles with a purchase price of less than 40,000 euros. The motor vehicle tax for this price range will be lowered to 0.25 percent. As of 2023, the road tax for trucks will be more in line with CO2 emissions and will be double the current rate. Commuters will be reimbursed for the higher costs.
  4. Railways
    Rail transport must become cheaper and more efficient. For this purpose, an additional €10 billion will be invested between now and 2030, and value added tax on long-distance train tickets will be reduced from 19% to 7%.
  5. Flights
    Plane tickets will have to be at least twice as expensive as the tax that is on them. Now that means that even the cheapest ticket may not be cheaper than 30 euros. Furthermore, the airport tax is to be increased in order to finance extra investment in the railways.
  6. Cheaper electricity
    In order to avoid overcharging consumers, the environmental tax on electricity – the so-called EEG tariff which subsidizes green electricity – will be reduced by 0.25 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity by 2021. In 2022, this will drop by a further 0.25 cents and another 0.125 cents in 2023. The EEC tariff is currently 6.4 cents, which is about one fifth of the total electricity price in Germany.
  7. Wind and solar energy
    With regard to the electricity supply, a target of 60% green energy has been set for 2030. This will require more wind and solar energy. How Berlin wants to achieve this still needs to be worked out in more detail.
    With regard to wind energy, Berlin has proposed stricter guidelines for onshore wind turbines. New windmills must be at least 1000 meters away from residential areas, which means that there is considerably less space available for new windmills. This must be compensated for by more offshore wind power stations. The aim is to increase capacity from 5 to 20 gigawatts by 2030.
    Additionally, the subsidy limit for solar energy, which was set at 52 gigawatts, will be lifted.
  8. Building renovations
    An extra subsidy will be granted for making buildings energy-efficient.
  9. Oil heating
    Germany still has many old-fashioned oil heaters, especially in rural areas. This has to stop and in order to achieve this there will be a trade-in incentive of up to 40%. New oil heaters will be prohibited as of 2026.
  10. Costs
    Berlin estimates that the climate deal will result in approximately €54 billion in additional costs for the state coffers between now and 2023. That is about 1.3% of the gross domestic product (GDP).


Ireland plans to plant 440 million trees over the next 20 years

In the coming two decades, the “Green Island” is to once more become as green as it once was in the past. 80 percent of the 84,421 square kilometer island in Northern Europe was formerly covered in forest. Changes in climate, but first and foremost humankind, had by 1929 decimated this forest to just one percent. No other European country has chopped down its trees as mercilessly as Ireland has. Meanwhile, the forest has grown back again in the 20th century thanks to extensive planting ideas from the government.

According to estimates by the National Forest Inventory (NFI), the forest area was 731,650 hectares or 10.5 percent of the total land area in 2012. Although with a total land area of almost 11 percent this was the highest level for more than 350 years, the country still ranks far behind on the European list of forestation ratios. The European average is over 30 percent.

© Pixabay

22 million new trees per year

However, the current climate debate has caught up with the almost five million inhabitants of the ‘Emerald Island’. According to the Irish Times, 22 million trees will be planted per year and comprehensive reforestation will take place by the year 2040. A total of 440 million trees will be planted. The government’s climate protection plan published in June estimates an annual planting of 8,000 hectares. In terms of the type and number of trees, the estimates are 2,500 conifers or 3,300 deciduous trees per hectare, the target being 70 percent conifers and 30 percent deciduous trees.

“The target for new forestation is approximately 22 million trees per year. Over the next 20 years, the goal is to plant 440 million,” Treehugger quotes a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Communications, Climate Protection and the Environment. “The climate action plan commits to delivering an expansion of forestry planting and soil management so as to ensure that carbon abatement from land-use is delivered over the period 2021 to 2030 and in the years beyond.”

Let nature do its thing

However, not everyone is fully in favor of this massive reforestation. As The Times reports, the reforestation initiative requires some land-use changes, especially for farmers. They have to designate parts of their land for new trees. However, they are not showing much enthusiasm, although they will be compensated through forest grants. Surprisingly, the farmers receive support from a non-profit nature conservation organization. The Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) does not believe that non-native tree species such as the Sitka spruce would fare well in Ireland. In addition, remote coniferous forests would not provide the right habitat for native species.

“People are not good at planting trees and trees do not like being planted. They prefer to plant themselves,” Pádraic Fogarty, IWT Campaign Officer, told The Irish Independent. In his opinion, it would be better to pay them to plant nothing at all and allow their land to grow wild.

© Pixabay

“We have a mental block about letting nature do its thing,” he says. “We see a space recovered by nature and we think it’s scrub and wasteland and want to get it back ‘under control’ whereas if we just left it alone, the forest would come back all by itself.”

Ireland’s initiative against climate change also includes other measures such as increasing the number of electric vehicles and modernizing houses.

Other countries plant trees, too

But Ireland is not the only country to plant new trees. A recent wide-ranging study has shown that trees, or intensive reforestation, are one of the most effective strategies against climate change. According to the study, about two-thirds of all CO2 emissions could be captured by planting trees on all unused areas worldwide. As a result of this study, even countries such as Iceland, North Korea, and Ethiopia have started planting new trees. Ethiopia even set a new world record at the end of July – the African nation planted 350 million trees in one single day. Around 23 million people took part in it according to the Ministry of Agriculture. In Germany, the Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, Julia Klöckner, and the Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder have repeatedly spoken out in favor of massive state reforestation.

More articles on the subject of forests can be found here.

No relation between Arctic Climate Change and colder winters

The Arctic climate changes will not increase the chance of colder winters in the short term. Analysis of climate models shows that relatively cold winters and Arctic sea ice decline occur simultaneously, but that one does not cause the other.

Europe hasn’t felt it as much as elsewhere, but there has been a noticeable increase in extremely cold winters, for example in North America. Recent studies into the relationship between the decline in sea ice at the North Pole and ice-cold winters at mid-latitudes, such as the Polar Vortex cold waves in North America, seem to suggest that there is a link between cold winters and Arctic changes. However, the mechanisms behind this relationship have so far been unclear, mainly due to the chaotic nature of the climate system. This is now finished thanks to the publication of a scientific article in Nature Climate Change.

This article makes use of an extensive set of climate data produced by two detailed climate models, including the KNMI climate model EC-Earth. This large amount of climate data enables statistical connections that were previously hidden in the noise of the climate system.

Analysis of the model data shows that relatively cold winters and Arctic sea ice decline appear to be the result of an entirely different mechanism, namely large-scale deviations in atmospheric circulation. An important aspect of this study is that both climate models come to exactly the same conclusion. In addition, a separate simulation with imposed sea ice decrease does not lead to cold winters in our regions at all.

Honorary professor Richard Bintanja of the University of Groningen, who collaborated on the analysis: “The findings in our article show that a further decrease in Arctic sea ice in the near future will most likely not lead to more and intense wintry cold waves, because episodes with little Arctic sea ice are the result of unusual atmospheric circulation patterns and not the cause.”

Quantum Physics for Precise Dating of Glacial Ice

In the Eastern Alps a new measuring method for the precise dating of glacier ice was tested. The method is based on quantum physics techniques and enables the precise analysis of glacial ice from the past thousand years. This has not been possible with existing methods so far.

Glacier ice is considered a huge climate archive. Its analysis provides information on regional environmental conditions and climate changes in past centuries and at the same time, offers an outlook on future developments. Factors to be determined are the nature and age of samples. Researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and the University of Heidelberg have developed a new measuring method for the precise dating of glacial ice. The so-called atomic trapmethodis based on quantum physical techniques.

Atomic Trap Method

Until now, the age of ice has been determined with the aid of radiocarbon dating. However, this only allowed an indirect conclusion to be drawn about the age – via parts of organisms or microorganisms trapped in the ice. With the innovation of the so-called atomic trap method, the age of the ice can be determined using the Argon-39 it contains. Argonis a radioactive noble gas and trace element in our ambient air. Its isotope Argon-39 decays with a half-life of two hundred and sixty-nine years. The noble gas is extremely rare. Only up to ten thousand Argon-39 atoms are contained in one kilogram of ice. With previous methods, these atoms were not available for age determination because several tons of ice would have been necessary.

Glacial Ice

Now the atom trap method has been tested in a pilot study in the Eastern Alps. The glacier ice from Schaufelferner in the Stubai Alps in Tyrol was investigated. It was not the first analysis with the atomic trap method. This method had already been used before. Already measured was the dating of

  • older Antarctic ice using krypton-81 isotopes;
  • Groundwater by Argon-39;

The glaciologists Andrea Fischer and Pascal Bohleber from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), conducted the research together with the physicists Markus Oberthaler and Werner Aeschbach from the University of Heidelberg. The samples were sawn from an ice cave three thousand meters above sea level. About five kilograms of glacial ice were transported to Heidelberg in a deep-freeze transporter, where the quantum-physical measuring procedure was carried out.


In the laboratory, the ice was evaporated to make the individual Argon-39-atoms countable. This is made possible by an optical resonance process (laser light) based on methods of quantum mechanics – making a kind of trap. While the other isotopes pass the atomic trap unhindered, Argon-39 is slowed down and detected by the light.

The pilot test was successful and showed that the atom trap method is suitable for determining the composition of glaciers at the beginning of the second millennium with high accuracy. The results from the ice samples from Schaufelferner were confirmed by comparative values from the first instrumental climate measurements and historical documentation. This is a breakthrough as this period was not accessible with existing methods.

Small Ice Age

The analysis of the Little Ice Age – a period of relatively cool climates from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-nineteenth century – is particularly promising. The time was not continuously cold, but characterized by a rapid change between warm and cold periods. Understanding how the climate system in the Alps reacts to large fluctuations also contributes to understanding the climate system as a whole.

“A better understanding of the interplay of climate, geology and ecosystems can help us to better classify future weather and climate fluctuations.”  ÖAW glacier researcher Andrea Fischer.

The results of the study were published in the US journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Zhongyi Feng, Pascal Bohleber, Sven Ebser, Lisa Ringena, Maximilian Schmidt, Arne Kersting, Philip Hopkins, Helene Hoffmann, Andrea Fischer, Werner Aeschbach, and Markus K. Oberthaler (2019): Dating glacier ice of the last millennium by quantum technology. In: PNAS.

Also interesting:

Schrödinger’s Cat Learns to Fly

What’s in Vacuum? – Research Group is on the Track of “Nothingness”



Some basic knowledge about CO2 would benefit the climate debate

zuurstof co2 atmosfeer

This is a guest contribution by Jan van der Meer, alderman for sustainability in Eindhoven.

The last few weeks have seen a heated debate on the draft climate agreement in the Netherlands. As a result, climate change is once again being questioned by many. The discussions often reveal a lack of basic knowledge about CO2 and it would, therefore, be good if more attention were paid to this in blogs and articles. I am going to make an attempt. Conservatives would do well to respect science and look for their own package of measures from there. Because you really don’t have to be a scientist to conclude that something is going wrong at the moment. The key lies in basic knowledge about the effects of CO2 that should be present in all of us.

klimaatkassa TelegraafAs if it had been agreed on, several conservative and populist opinion makers attacked the climate agreement just before Christmas. As always, De Telegraaf went the furthest in getting the Dutch people into a state of opposition and anger. And because the conservatives do not crumble the measures that are needed, they also immediately deny that the earth is warming up and/or that man has any influence on it.

On social media, both ‘climate alarmists’ and ‘climate sceptics’ try to convince each other with all kinds of graphs and articles. From the web, it is easy to pick an article from your liking, whether it is true or not. The fact that since 1988 we have had a panel of hundreds of scientists from all over the world (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; IPCC), who are constantly evaluating the risks of climate change on the basis of critically tested studies, is apparently not enough. But the IPCC has been proving for years: the earth is warming up and the warming is caused by an excess of CO2 in the atmosphere, ended up there by burning fossil fuels.

This consensus among scientists, however, is by no means convincing for the opponents of climate policy. The populists have now even come up with a new frame, namely that the scientists earn their living from climate science and that they are therefore not independent. This, for example, is how the friendly weatherman Gerrit Hiemstra suddenly becomes suspicious. De Telegraaf presented a manifesto of 24 ‘scientists’ with a counter-sound. Mind you: not one climate scientist was among them and no one had a scientific article about the climate reviewed by other colleagues to his name. For de Telegraaf, it is apparently no problem to pretend that opinions within science are divided about climate change. Everything for the purpose of getting that disgusting climate agreement off the table. This way, noise is created in society about (the causes of) climate change.

The most striking thing about the discussions on twitter is that many people lack basic knowledge about the functioning of the atmosphere and the role of CO2 in it. Once you know broadly how things work, it’s easier to understand what it’s all about. Simply put, it comes down to the following. When the world came into being about 4.5 billion years ago, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere and there were no animals to absorb that oxygen. Slowly plants have converted carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen through photosynthesis and animals (including humans) could be formed. This balance in the thin layer of atmosphere around the earth – on which we depend as humans – has been disturbed since the industrial era. The CO2 absorbed by the plants ended up in the soil through decay of extinct plants and eventually after millions of years turned into coal, oil and natural gas. Mankind has discovered these fossil fuels and since then has been burning them at an increasingly rapid rate, releasing the stored CO2 within a few decades and seriously upsetting the balance. By the actions of man.


Carbon dioxide is a gas that causes sunrays in the atmosphere to reach the earth, but they are difficult to remove. This is therefore also called the greenhouse effect. Too much CO2 in the atmosphere, therefore, leads to global warming. This basic knowledge should be told a bit more in all blogs and articles so that all kinds of scientific research no longer has to be waved on to show that climate change is going on, what the causes are and what can be done about it. Nowadays, you really don’t have to be a scientist to conclude that something is going on. Heat records are being broken at an ever-increasing rate. For example, the Netherlands still has to recover from two heat waves and a long period of drought in 2018. The ten warmest years ever measured are almost all years after 2000. In short, leave science in its value and use your own common sense.

As I said in the introduction, many conservatives do not endorse the measures contained in the draft climate agreement. But instead of devising measures themselves, science is being called into question. Purely to do nothing. In that sense, these people are true conservatives. The war over science simply cannot be won, not only because the evidence of anthropogenic warming is overwhelming, but also because the warming can simply be experienced outside in reality. It is getting dryer, hotter and wetter and everyone is experiencing this now; all over the world. The solution to prevent worse is really the reduction of CO2. So to the climate sceptics, I say: leave science to what it is and come up with your own measures. That may well be nuclear energy and thorium, but do something and engage in a constructive debate on the package of measures.

miljoenennota 2019

As far as I am concerned, the discussion is also about the distribution of costs. And this is really not about 1,000 billion euros in the Netherlands, as Thierry Baudet would have us believe. According to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, the social costs are about three to four billion per year, much less than we spend on defence each year (ten billion). However, the burden will have to be shared more fairly than is currently being proposed. The business community, for example, could pay a tax per tonne of CO2 emitted. That is not in the agreement at the moment.

The last resort of the conservatives in the debate is the position that the contribution of the Netherlands to the whole is minimal. After all, we make up only 0.3% of the world’s population. But on the other hand, we are the 18th economy in the world (1% of the total) and emit much more than the average per inhabitant. But more importantly, as Dutch people we live in a delta, so we run a high risk of flooding due to rising sea levels. If there is one group of people in Europe that should be very concerned about climate change, it is the Dutch. Reducing CO2 emissions is, therefore, essential for the survival of our country and so we must ensure that we move from the rearguard to the vanguard and finally set a good example. Because with the current 7% renewable energy, we are not exactly at the forefront of Europe. Finally, if you do not do it because of the climate, do it because of our economy. Because anyway, the future is green and it’s better to earn from that.

sea level

Tomorrow is Good – How to find truth in the climate change debate?


After another tumultuous post-truth fake-news year, I would like to present some do’s and don’t for truth finding in 2019. The example I take is the climate change debate that has been revigorated in the Netherlands by the acceptance of a Climate Agreement last week.

First what I think you should not do.

Don’t debate. Sceptics and populist love to debate but it’s mostly about scoring points and preaching to the converted. (I’m looking at you Thierry Baudet.) The advantage of a debate is that it’s quick and gets attention. I’ve done my share of debates and I like the gamesmanship involved. The problem is that who wins a debate has more to do with debating skills and less with the truthfulness of arguments. A debate is a rather useless way of fact-finding because the format doesn’t allow for thoroughly testing of facts and claims: there simply isn’t time. And for complex issues like nuclear energy and climate change, a debate is a completely useless format. That’s why I politely decline to debate these issues and I advise others to do the same.

Don’t look for information that confirms what you already know. We all have our biases and the dominant one is confirmation bias: we are always looking for ways to confirm what we already know and social media and Internet can supply us with a constant stream of reinforcing information. My main advice to you would be: listen to people and read sources of information that you don’t agree with. Follow some smart people with different views on twitter. Read online blogs that are a little outside your comfort zone. Etc. Reward yourself if you find something that forces you to change your mind.

Don’t focus too much on what you will lose either because your next biggest bias is probably loss aversion. We are much more sensitive to losing than to gaining. I think this is the main reason it is so hard to convince people that electric cars and electric trucks will soon be cheaper without subsidy and that we can really grow our wealth using renewable energy. I used to think that renewable energy and mobility were things we had to do to leave this world a better place for future generations. I now think we will not ditch fuel technology because it’s limited and dirty but because it’s outdated and expensive.

facts climate Don’t fall for the five main misinformation mechanisms: fake experts, cherry picking, logical fallacies, impossible expectations and conspiracy theories. It’s always possible to find scientists who disagree with manmade climate change but it’s much harder if you limit your search for experts to up-to-date climate change researchers.

Do use fact checking. Did you know that almost every ‘fact’ used by people who deny climate change has been debunked ad nauseum? Here is a good list with refutations. And believe you me, climate scientists know: the climate has changed before; the sun is a factor; Antarctica is not losing sea ice; et cetera. And yes, making good models is hard but the models have been pretty spot on in their predictions.

Do use science. Science is our system for building and organizing knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions. There are millions of academics worldwide (some claim 90% of all the scientists the world ever knew are alive today) trying to understand pieces of the puzzle. Their only coordinating mechanism is that you get paid if you get published in one of the thousands of peer-reviewed journals. And you get published if you find something new or something that is wrong with what’s already there. It’s that simple. That’s also why you will never get all scientist to agree on a topic: they are paid to find inconsistencies. I would even say it’s in their DNA. But although science is a non-consensual, slow and often tedious process, it leads to precisely testable hypotheses that are constantly subjected to criticism. It’s by far the best process we have ever devised for finding the truth.

And if you hunger for more facts in your life in 2019 and you hunger for a little hope to keep going, why not read Factfulness? I think it’s one of the best books of 2019. I wish you a truthful and factful 2019!


About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Maarten Steinbuch, Mary Fiers, Carlo van de Weijer, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. The six columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow will be good. Here are all previous episodes.