Minister for the Environment Heijnen at Fourth EU Clean Air Forum

23-11-2023

‘Healthy soil, clean water and clean air for everyone are the cornerstones of our policy, nationally and internationally. It’s disturbing to think that air pollution is shortening the lives of tens of thousands of people. We need to commit to significantly reducing these numbers.'

Vice President Šefčovič, Your Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the Netherlands, and welcome to Rotterdam.
I’d like to start by saying how proud and grateful I am that the Netherlands and the city of Rotterdam are hosting this fourth Clean Air Forum.

Yesterday was election day here in the Netherlands, and millions of people cast their votes. Let us not forget that the right to vote in a free and democratic country is not something to take for granted; it is a right that we must always continue to defend. Especially in these difficult times, with war raging on Europe’s borders and elsewhere in the world.
We come together today on a former cruise ship, in the middle of a dynamic city that is also Europe’s biggest port.
This ship first set sail more than 60 years ago.
It carried millions of passengers between Rotterdam and New York.
In those days we were only beginning to understand how human behaviour affects the climate.
The Club of Rome published its alarming – and now famous – report entitled ‘The Limits to Growth’ in 1972.
The message in that report was clear: we would have to take action quickly, and together. Not only at the national level, but also, especially, on an international scale. If not, the world as we know it wouldn’t last much longer. And that is something that’s bigger than the interests of any individual country. That requires joint international action. And it applies to the topic that is our focus today: clean air.

It’s been many years since the launch of this ship and the birth of climate policy.
We’ve achieved so much since the 1960s and seventies.
In our country and across Europe.
Briefly, here are a few examples.
We’ve set rules for vehicle emissions and taken action on industrial carbon emissions;
we’ve started a transition to renewable sources of energy, like solar power and wind;
we have low-emission zones in many European cities;
we’ve phased out aerosols; and
we’ve introduced regulations for preventing soil pollution.

Even so, there are still critical voices that say – and rightly so – that there’s been too much talking and not enough action.
Particularly when we look at the worldwide increase in carbon emissions, and the effects of global warming, and what new and hazardous chemicals are doing to our soil and water.

So, of course, you and I know that we still face plenty of challenges.
We need to rethink and reshape our way of life and our economy.
We need to make our societies even more sustainable, and ensure a healthy living environment for all of our people.
Health must be our main priority.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Healthy soil, clean water and clean air for everyone are the cornerstones of our policy, nationally and internationally.
It’s essential that children can play outdoors safely,
that we have good quality drinking water that won’t make us ill, and
that the air we breathe is not going to make us sick either.

It’s disturbing to think that air pollution is shortening the lives of tens of thousands of people. We need to commit to significantly reducing these numbers.
And we can do it.
By taking responsibility for our planet, our natural resources and our air. It will require good stewardship and good leadership.
We have a responsibility to pass on a healthy planet to future generations.
But if we continue down the road we’re on now, we won’t be able to.

Rotterdam is a great place to talk about challenges and ambitions around clean air and how to tackle the climate crisis.

Here, surrounded by all the economic activity of a busy international port and densely populated urban centre. With all this road, water and rail traffic, and industrial activity: here we have to work even harder, show ambition, be creative, innovate.
The task we face is to sustain and boost the economic success of this region, while making it healthy and safe for everyone who lives here.

I have a couple of examples of inspiring and innovative developments in and around the port of Rotterdam.
This city is the heart of our maritime industry, and together with the maritime industry we are investing actively in sustainable shipping. Yesterday some of you motored around the port on the “Zilvermeeuw”, an electric-powered boat that is 100% sustainable.
With the support of central government, our shipyards will build more than 40 sustainable ships in the coming years.
And we’re seeing more and more electric boats being used for short trips – like the ferries in Amsterdam.
In the run-up to the Olympic Games in Paris, a Dutch shipyard is even building an electric ferry to run on the Seine.
And we’re increasingly developing alternative fuels like methanol for longer sea journeys.
Another positive development is that cruise ships and other large vessels are moving away from polluting diesel generators and switching to shore power. This is another thing that’s on its way to becoming mainstream. So the port of Rotterdam really is a catalyst for forward-looking changes in the maritime sector.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m talking to you today in an international setting. Clean air in particular is something that needs cross-border cooperation, and cooperation within Europe’s borders.
Clean air is at the top of our agenda here in Europe, and it has to stay there.
Rigorous European policy aimed at reducing emissions at the source is the key to improving air quality in Europe.
The revision of the EU clean air directive gives us an opportunity to incorporate stringent norms that will help us make enormous progress on this.

By the way, I must say I’m frankly disappointed not to see a more ambitious proposal for the revised Industrial Emissions Directive.
Please excuse my directness, Commissioner. But I’m sure you’re familiar with how outspoken we Dutch people can be. ;)
But here in this international setting, I’d like to stress again how important it is for us to demonstrate leadership in Europe.
European cooperation will be crucial as we develop legislation on air quality.
Air pollution doesn’t stop at national borders, and that’s why European cooperation is an essential part of protecting our citizens and ensuring clean air for everyone.
At the same time, our efforts for clean air in Europe are also helping to reduce health inequality in Europe, and so promoting social justice.
The Netherlands will uphold its responsibility in the EU, by taking action against particulates and other air-polluting substances, in line with the Clean Air Agreement.

This agreement – between central government, all of our provinces and more than 100 Dutch municipalities – is intended to achieve health gains of at least 50 per cent by 2030, compared to 2016.
A great practical example of how we’re working on this is another agreement, which I reached this month with parties in the construction sector, government and contracting authorities.
I made a billion euros available to promote the use of cleaner, quieter building equipment.
That’s especially important given that we will need to build a huge number of new homes in the coming years – nearly a million of them. What’s more, sustainable construction is not only good for our health, it’s also good for the environment and the climate.

Measures like this underline our commitment to a healthy living environment.
And we support broader European efforts for cleaner air and a sustainable future. For all of our citizens, and for future generations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In closing, the city of Rotterdam lives by the motto ‘deeds, not words’.
It’s a hands-on kind of place, where they roll up their sleeves and get to work. And that’s exactly the attitude and the mindset we need to realise our ambitions for clean air.
We need to get on with it and take concrete action.
Because whether people are old or young, whether they live in the countryside or the city, they have a right to breathe clean air.
It’s our duty to our fellow citizens, including our future generations, to ensure that they can.
And that’s why I’m calling on you, the European Commission and Parliament, national governments, cities, the business sector and experts: let us take action; let us shape a future in which everyone can lead a good, healthy life.

Thank you.

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