Climate fairness on a Dutch ballot

He convinced Europe to become the first continent to be climate neutral by 2050. He convinced it to switch large tracts of land to nature preserves. Now Frans Timmermans, or “Mister Green Deal,” faces what may be an even bigger challenge. After stepping down as European Commissioner for green policies in August, the Dutch politician is facing voters Wednesday in an election that will determine the next prime minister of the Netherlands. Only it is much more than that.

Mr. Timmermans’ main hurdle in the election: convincing Dutch citizens that the costs of going green will be fairly shared – among farmers or anyone else who contributes to greenhouse gases – and that no one is left behind in Europe’s energy transition.

The election is one of the most closely watched this year, and for good reason. It comes days before the next climate summit convened by the United Nations. The confab opens Nov. 30 in Dubai with one focus: how to distribute the burden of mitigating and adapting to climate change. Emerging economies are seeking some $100 billion from rich nations to soften the impact of extreme weather.

The Dutch election could send a signal on whether leaders like Mr. Timmermans can be trusted to find fair formulas for energy sacrifices at the local and national level. He certainly knows the issue. A half-century ago, he watched how the hometown of his grandfather, a miner, had to face the government closure of coal mines.

“After the mine closures, Meezenbroek slid away, slowly at first and later more rapidly,” Mr. Timmermans wrote in a newsletter after a campaign stop there. “Neglect, alienation, degradation. A feeling of insecurity, a deep unease.”

The big issue he faces in the campaign is whether to force Dutch farmers to reduce the nitrogen emissions that contribute to global warming – a mandatory policy he championed in the European Union. Last March, after protests by farmers on tractors, a pro-farmers party won heavily in local elections. In a televised debate, he suggested that he was open to negotiating.

Mr. Timmermans “will have his work cut out to win over the Dutch public – a majority of whom support farmers in opposing government plans to cut pollution by reducing livestock herds,” wrote Francesco Grillo of European University Institute in The Guardian.

The election is a test of how leaders can calm the fears of individuals over the coming energy transition. “Discontent with green policies is not necessarily a sign that people are unconcerned by climate change. More plausibly, they are tired of being lectured to and impatient with the failure to recognise that the energy transition can’t be achieved by one-size-fits-all prescriptions that pay scant attention to implementation and cost at the individual level,” wrote Mr. Grillo. “We will win the battle for the radical transformation required only if citizens see themselves as part of it, rather than as passive consumers of top-down decisions.”

Having come down from the top echelons of EU decision-making, Mr. Timmermans is now humbled by the farmers he faces. “I am hereby offering them a helping hand,” he said. “We will come up with proposals together.”

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