Circular cities: Rotterdam’s strategy


Creating inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements is the eleventh sustainable development goal of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. To achieve this and at the same time create a regenerative circular economy, the Netherlands has put in place a roadmap until 2050. The Dutch government’s program “Circular Nederland in 2050” has as main objectives a reduction of 50% of the use of raw materials by 2030., focusing on the efficient reuse and redesign of products and materials. In order to implement such a program, the government has selected a set of pioneer cities collaborating among themselves as key players with Rotterdam as one of these flagship cities for the creation of circular and local adaptation strategies. Through a series of programs and investments, the Dutch city is focusing on its port and beyond as a global model of circularity.

Committed to becoming a resilient and sustainable city, although still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, Rotterdam has a very ambitious energy transition plan. For a more in-depth look, Renewable Matter interviewed Arno Bonte, Rotterdam’s Deputy Mayor for Sustainability, Clean Air and Energy Transition.

Antonella Ilaria Totaro: In 2017, with the Rotterdam Circular report, Gemeente Rotterdam – the municipality – set very ambitious targets to be achieved by 2030 in terms of raw materials and waste streams. Four years later, what stage are you at?

Arno Goodness: In 2017, we set ourselves three main goals: halving carbon oxide emissions; reduce the use of raw materials by 50%; and improve air quality. Always keeping these objectives in mind, we strive to change our economy but also the organization of the city, mobility and real estate construction. Four years later, considering the reduction in CO2 emissions, we have made real progress. The growth trend of carbon dioxide has reversed and CO2 emissions are declining. There is still a long way to go, and the same goes for reducing the use of raw materials. By supporting local projects and motivating citizens to sort their waste, we have succeeded in effectively reducing the amount of waste produced while increasing the amount of plastic to be recycled. But it’s still early days. The next step will involve a major expansion of this project.

Totaro: How do you plan to extend the project while accelerating the circular transition?

Goodness : We introduced Energietransitiefonds (Dutch), a $ 118 million energy transition fund aimed at investing in startups, scale-ups and sustainable companies capable of accelerating not only the energy transition but also circularity.

Thanks to this fund, if on the one hand we can help companies realize their project, on the other hand, as a municipality, we ourselves become investors. This is not the primary purpose of the fund, but if we earn income from these investments over the years, we could use it for new investments.

Totaro: As a municipality, you follow a path. Do companies share your vision?

Goodness : Yes, over the past few years, clearly displaying our goals, we have come into contact with over 100 companies and organizations. In November 2019, with them, we signed the Rotterdam Climate Agreement, an agreement where the Municipality of Rotterdam, businesses and organizations embark on a transition. Thanks to this agreement, we embarked on a new journey into the future Rotterdam circular on five key issues: port and industry; environment; mobility; clean energy; and consumption.

Totaro: So, has the Port of Rotterdam also signed this agreement?

Goodness : Of course. In collaboration with Haven van Rotterdam, we plan to create a circular platform to recycle fabrics and plastics in the port. We have also taken the first steps to become leaders in the bioeconomy. We are still very dependent on fossil fuels, but our ambition is to become leaders in sustainable development within 10 years. We believe this is not only necessary for the future of our planet, but also for the future of our local economy. We need to change now to be competitive in the future.

Totaro: What is the relationship between Rotterdam’s local strategy and that of the national government on climate?

Goodness : National and local ambitions are closely linked. We both take the Paris Agreement very seriously. The Rotterdam metropolitan area is responsible for 20 percent of the Netherlands’ carbon monoxide emissions. This is due to our huge industrial area. This is why we feel morally responsible and we feel the need to act against climate change. As the city is located in the middle of the Meuse delta, we are also very vulnerable. Acting is in our own interest while our local ambitions can help the Netherlands achieve their climate goals. As a city, there is a lot we can do for this, such as creating Energietransitiefonds and working with companies that act independently. However, we also need funds from our national government and the European Union to go further. Right now, for example, our hydrogen-based infrastructure is relatively small and we need more funds to expand that structure and create a more sustainable industry.

So, is national government support crucial for Rotterdam policies?

Goodness : We are the European leaders of the circular transition but, sometimes, on the front line, the risk of failure and the need to experiment with new activities come into play. It is not always easy. So, as a city, we need to be supported by the national government, both financially and through legislative changes. But it takes time. We are more and more ambitious, sometimes we want to go faster than the national government. We can count on the support of the national government if we continue to show that investments aimed at making the port of Rotterdam and the city more sustainable are successful while helping to achieve national goals.

Totaro: Regarding the laws, what would be the first thing you would ask the new Dutch government to change?

Goodness : What would really help – and I think this would apply not only to the Netherlands but to many other countries – would be an amendment on the labor tax which is much higher than the one on the use of materials. This change would also make economic sense and help reuse and recycle existing and circulating materials and products. This change cannot be made at the local level. We need the national government or even the EU.

Totaro: Besides the laws, what other challenges are Rotterdam, and the Netherlands in general, facing in the context of the energy and circular transition?

Goodness : Local, national and European funds are crucial for a successful transition. With our local funds for the energy transition, we can support startups and the dissemination of skills, but for larger investments in infrastructure, such as hydrogen, we need national and European funds. We have made such demands to the new Dutch governments and to the European Union. We believe that such proposals can also help the European Green Deal. After showing that, in practice, the transition can be completed, we will be able to share our knowledge and know-how with other European cities.

Totaro: Do ​​you think that the Rotterdam model can be reproduced elsewhere, also taking into account the European funds allocated to support the circular transition?

Goodness : Yes and no. If I look at the port of Rotterdam and the steps we are taking towards a hydrogen economy, I think all the technical aspects could be replicated by other industrial cities. In part, the model we use to gain support from businesses, entrepreneurs and our citizens could also be replicated. We are used to cooperating and debating: this is one of the crucial aspects of our approach, but it is also a particular element of Dutch culture. Thus, in other cities, different approaches more suited to local requirements would probably be more productive.

Totaro: How do you see Rotterdam in 10 years?

Goodness : The Rotterdam I dream of in 10 years is a city which will not only have made a transition to a sustainable economy, but which will also have created new jobs. I am thinking above all of the new jobs that can be created in offshore wind power. At the moment it is an emerging sector, but in the future it will be one of the main industries, even in the port of Rotterdam.

Hopefully within 10 years … 80 percent of jobs will be linked to sustainable industry.

Totaro: When you talk about new jobs, do you have a specific number in mind?

Goodness : It is very difficult to predict an exact number. Digitization and robotization are phenomena that are difficult to quantify. What I can say, however, is that at present around 80 percent of the existing jobs in the industrial sector of the Port of Rotterdam are related to the fossil industry. Hopefully within 10 years this trend will reverse, meaning that 80 percent of jobs will be linked to sustainable industry. We are currently working precisely on this new industry and this new economy. I dream of an economy using sustainable, circular energy sources, which above all creates a greener and healthier city. We always try to include the social element. A sustainable and competitive economy, new jobs, a healthy and green city must always go hand in hand with people breathing clean air, happy to live in Rotterdam.


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