This is how green the Netherlands could be in 100 years
Wageningen Climate Solutions
By Hanny Roskamp - December 2019
In 100 years from now, the Netherlands will be a land of green cities, circular agriculture, and more forests, water and swamps. A climate-proof Netherlands of this description is not just desirable but also feasible, say the Wageningen researchers Michael van Buuren and Martin Baptist.
The Netherlands faces serious challenges. Our country is becoming less habitable due to falling biodiversity, rising sea levels, land becoming salinized or drying out, an energy problem, floods, a housing shortage, soil and plagues of insects. If we don’t do anything, these problems will only get worse.
We need a new approach to exploiting natural resources and to spatial planning if we are to make a transition to a better, greener version of the Netherlands, say spatial planner Michael van Buuren and ecologist Martin Baptist of Wageningen University & Research. They have worked with a team of Wageningen researchers on a future scenario for 2120 in which the forces of nature keep the Netherlands safe and prosperous.
The researchers have illustrated the Wageningen version of the Netherlands in 2120 in a map (see illustration). Their vision is based on a number of criteria: for example, it had to deliver an optimal outcome for biodiversity, because only then can the country fundamentally thrive. And they had to work as much as possible with solutions in which there is a big role for natural processes. That meant producing an ideal picture, but it is definitely not a utopia, explains Michael van Buuren. ‘We weighed up what was probable, what was possible and what was desirable. The result is a map of what is possible, i.e. feasible and realistic. That is a bit less impressive than what is desirable, but we set the bar higher than what is probable.’
A map of The Netherlands in 2020 and the future scenario for the Netherlands in 2120.
PARKING WATER IN THE IJSSELMEER
So what could the Netherlands look like in 100 years’ time? On the map of the future, it looks as though the IJsselmeer has shrunk. It has gained a second shoreline on a chain of overlapping islands and sand banks parallel to the existing lakeshore. But since the IJsselmeer has been deepened to create these sand banks, it still contains the same volume of water. ‘This is inspired by the Marker Wadden as they are today,’ explains Van Buuren. ‘The Marker Wadden sand flats came into existence as the Markermeer lake started to be dredged, as a result of which other parts of the lake have been raised. That creates more space for plants and animals: biodiversity, in other words.’ Between the coast of North Holland and Friesland and the second shoreline, there will in future be a zone where the water level is fairly constant, which is handy for shipping.
The researchers decided to keep the Afsluitdijk, a long dyke that closes the IJsselmeer off from the sea. That way, the IJsselmeer will remain the largest freshwater reservoir in North-west Europe. ‘This solution secures a water supply for the Netherlands, as well as playing a role in managing large volumes of water,’ says van Buuren. ‘Thanks to the Afsluitdijk, the IJsselmeer can hold a lot of water, even if more comes down with the rivers that feed it. The water would then have to be pumped into the sea.’
Birds, animals and seeds can migrate north more easily if there is more room for nature along the IJssel
Van Buuren and Baptist propose dealing with surplus water caused by climate change as much as possible via the IJssel. At present, this takes place via the Waal, but the risk of flooding from the rivers is much bigger in the west of the country. Van Buuren: ‘At Fort Pannerden, where the Rhine divides, the water is channelled into the Waal. But the ground is much lower than the rivers there, and it is very densely populated, whereas the IJssel is surrounded by higher ground.’
This would mean the IJssel would have to be widened to twice its current width by moving dykes. ‘That would create more space for biodiversity. It would also make it easier for birds, animals and seeds to migrate from the south to the north if there was more room for nature along the IJssel. And that will be important as temperatures go up.’
The IJsselmeer area as it is in 2020, and the IJsselmeer as it might look in 2120.
The cities will be greener in 2120, and nature and urban areas will be more interspersed. Van Buuren: ‘Some former waters that were drained – such as the Haarlemmermeer – will be underwater again, as they were before 1850. This will prevent soil subsidence and contribute to the welling up of fresh groundwater, preventing salinization. The Netherlands was originally a wetland, a delta with water birds, swamps and wet forests. The Netherlands is unique in that, and we should stimulate it.’ In other words, it is nice that the wolf is settling here, but it would be even nicer if the Dalmatian pelican made a comeback. Baptist: ‘The Dalmatian pelican was living in the Netherlands in Roman times. It could come back if there were more wetlands and higher temperatures. So we are aiming for that.’
Some researchers believe that because of rising waters and sinking soils, we should depopulate the cities in the west of the country and move east, but Van Buuren and Baptist are convinced that the Netherlands will go on raising the dykes until there really is no point in doing so anymore. ‘We are more likely to do that than to relocate entire cities,’ they say. ‘What we will do is to green existing cities with vertical gardens, green roofs and more trees. Buildings in cities last an average of 60 years. When they are demolished, that is a crucial moment for doing some greening.’
Given that the population is set to continue growing in the coming years, it will also be necessary to build a lot of new housing.
‘We must make sure that housing is built in safer places, around the Veluwe and in Brabant on the edge of higher, sandy areas. But it is also important to combine construction with planting new woodland, so that you don’t get another homogeneous urban area such as the Randstad. This way, urban areas will be more dotted around the whole of the Netherlands.’
It is important to combine building construction with new woodland, so that you don’t end up with another urban area like the Randstad
The cities will be greener in 2120 than they are in 2020.
Agriculture will have to have a makeover too. ‘We are now the world’s mineral depot, because we import a lot of livestock feed,’ says Van Buuren. Baptist: ‘Our livestock farming will be circular in 100 years’ time, and less land will be used for agriculture due to higher productivity, to nature’s advantage. Crop farming will also be circular in 2120, and will focus on high-value production. In the future, the Dutch will eat a lot less meat and will make tasty, healthy food out of artificial proteins.’
The Dutch will have to eat a lot less meat in future and make tasty, healthy food from artificial proteins
It is important, says Van Buuren, that in future the Dutch only use the best land for crop farming, such as the fertile clay in Flevoland, Zeeland and Groningen. ‘That saves on all the fertilizer and water that currently has to be used to farm in other parts of the country. We shall have to make sure we keep salinization under control by keeping freshwater and saltwater flows separate and by setting up freshwater reservoirs.’ The cultivation of seaweed, lobster and shellfish will also be more established in the Netherlands. The researchers propose using the bases of wind turbines as structures for farming oysters. Van Buuren: ‘Old, dismantled wind turbines can also provide anchor points for seaweed farming.’
As for the energy supply of the future, the researchers want offshore wind farms in combination with fields full of solar panels. ‘We want to combine generating sustainable energy with hydrogen and methanol as energy carriers,’ says Baptist.
Can we expect a climate disaster to happen before we start implementing these plans? Baptist: ‘If you want the Netherlands to look like this in 100 years’ time, you will have to start gradually working towards it now. This map gives policymakers an approach that takes care of high-water safety, quality of life, the economy, the food supply, the energy supply and – last but not least – biodiversity. To realize a sustainable, resilient future, it is essential that we work with nature and make use of the forces of nature.’
How the North Sea as it looks in 2020 and how it might look in 2120.
If you would like to know more about WUR’s climate solutions for a future-proof Netherlands, visit our website.