How climate policy stops at the border

The Port of Rotterdam boasts of its green credentials in the Netherlands but invests in fossil fuel mega projects abroad.
As the largest European port and tenth largest in the world, the Rotterdam port currently accounts for 20 percent of Dutch energy consumption. Its most important customer is the fossil fuel industry.
As the largest European port and tenth largest in the world, the Rotterdam port currently accounts for 20 percent of Dutch energy consumption. Its most important customer is the fossil fuel industry.

The company operating the port, Port of Rotterdam (PoR), has an ambition to align with the Paris Agreement, and has presented a step-by-step plan to become a “sustainable and CO2 neutral” port by 2050. But a new study by SOMO shows that this progressive climate policy stops at the border, and only concerns its activities in the Netherlands. Internal policy documents show that the PoR is actively looking for commitments from oil companies or coal-fired power stations for its international projects in Brazil and Indonesia.

PoR’s international strategy states that foreign projects offer opportunities to strengthen Rotterdam’s competitive position in addition to generating new revenue models. As such, the PoR developed plans for a port-industrial complex in Kuala Tanjung in Indonesia. Although PoR has refused to allow access to the feasibility studies, various sources show the inclusion of a coal-fired power plant and possibly a coal terminal in the project plans. This coal-fired power plant is planned to provide various future industrial clusters (metal and petrochemical) with electricity. In their response to SOMO, PoR states that Indonesia “will unfortunately be dependent on fossil fuels for a longer period of time.”

In Brazil, PoR is involved in port development in Porto Central and Pecem. Due to its strategic location in relation to oil and gas fields, Porto Central hopes to be able to recruit the most important players in the Brazilian fossil industry as customers. Porto Central will offer these companies distribution and storage facilities for oil and the port will be dredged and made accessible for the largest oil tankers. The report of PoR’s shareholder meeting on January 10, 2019 shows that PoR itself actively sought ‘oil commitments’ for the Brazilian project.

According to SOMO, this practice does not align with the Paris Agreements. As long as the fossil fuel industry plays a central role in international projects, this will exacerbate climate change. The projects developed by the PoR make countries dependent on the fossil industry for decades to come. Once a coal terminal has been built, it must be used for at least twenty years to get the return on the investment.

These new port developments are mega projects that radically change the social and physical environment. Although the activities generated by these ports promise employment and new sources of income, they are accompanied by a loss in diversity of income sources, land expropriation and social disruption. The subsequent profound changes to ecosystems, such as mangrove forests, result in a cascade of biodiversity loss.

The adverse effects for people and the environment are not limited to the port area alone. Ports are nodes in global value chains. They open up the hinterland and promote the development of transport infrastructure, and with it the increase in the supply of goods. Although PoR emphasises that its involvement in international projects leads to positive results, SOMO has asked for whom these results are positive, and how these positive results compare to the negative consequences. What a company defines as a positive result may be in stark contrast to the local population’s assessment.

SOMO shows that a narrow focus on CO2 emissions within national boundaries does little to tackle the challenges that climate change produces. Instead, a just transition demands a structural transformation with a global focus that scrutinises our current system of production, reproduction and consumption, including underlying unequal social relationships. Instead of the distracting metrics of CO2, the energy transition demands equal access and democratic control over energy based on ecological integrity.

Furthermore, rather than locking countries into decades of fossil dependency, SOMO advocates a transition that takes into account past injustices, the prevention of future injustices and compensation for the most affected. This requires a shift of socio-economic priorities from economic growth towards prosperity that is accessible to all in a healthy environment. The goal is a society in which development is not imposed but is determined, and where value is not extracted but redistributed.

Ilona Hartlief is a researcher at SOMO and is especially interested in analysing and revealing the drivers behind, the dynamics of, and the impacts produced by big infrastructure projects. She wants to make this information accessible to a large audience and aims to contribute to movement building. She has a specific interest in issues related to feminism, power relations and climate justice.

Rhodante Ahlers is a researcher at SOMO (Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations) and specialises in interdisciplinary research into social, ecological and technological interactions that produce uneven and contested landscapes, and that reveal potential pressure points for achieving social and environmental justice. Her current work at SOMO focuses on energy and infrastructure development, and how these are financed.

Photo: Frans Berkelaar, CC 2.0

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Ilona Hartlief and Rhodante Ahlers

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