Awash in Carbon Emissions, Port of Rotterdam Aspires to Sustainable Future

Fifth of a five-part series on Rotterdam’s efforts to become a sustainable and “climate-proof” city. 

As part of the European Union (EU), the Netherlands must shoulder its share of the EU’s commitment to cut emissions and thus pledged to reduce its emissions 30 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2025. To achieve these goals, Rotterdam, the Netherland’s second largest city, implemented a climate plan in 2007 known as the Rotterdam Climate Initiative (RCI).

With the port of Rotterdam being the city’s largest source of emissions and Europe’s largest seaport, it transships millions of tons of fossil fuels annually and hosts many energy-intensive industries. The Port Authority, however, is officially aligned with the goals of the RCI and states that it intends the port to become Europe’s most sustainable and efficient port.

Although two of the port’s legacy coal-fired power plants (500 MW each) are set to close in 2017, two larger coal plants, totaling 1,870 MW, opened in the port in 2015. These newer plants generate a combined 9.7 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually, about 50 percent more than the older plants.

The building of new coal plants conflicts with the port’s stated environmental goals. According to its website, the port is committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 20 percent in 2020, 50 percent in 2030, and 80 percent in 2050. How this will be achieved is not clear.

Most of the emissions reductions were expected to come from an experimental technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS). Although used to reinject CO2 from Norwegian oil field operations, no large-scale CCS had ever been proven to be technologically and commercially viable for a large coal plant.

The larger of the port’s two new coal plants, Uniper Maastvlatke 3, is a 1,070-MW facility with a CCS unit. Not yet operational, it is only designed to capture, at best, 25 percent of the plant’s CO2 emissions. The other new plant is not CCS ready.

Rotterdam’s Climate Ambitions

Despite the risks of using unproven CCS technology, Rotterdam’s city and port officials allowed the new coal plants to be built on the theory that their emissions would be trapped by CCS and reinjected into depleted oil and gas fields beneath the North Sea. The port’s pledge to steeply reduce emissions and the reality of its rising emissions were sharply at odds.

In the wake of disillusionment over CCS technology, Rotterdam eventually abandoned the RCI’s carbon reduction commitment.

A Call for National Climate Action

To ensure national energy policy cohesion, the port of Rotterdam’s business coalition called on the Netherlands government to accelerate its transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy; create a Minister for Economy, Climate and Energy position; and establish a national investment bank to support energy projects.

Changing Direction

The unprecedented demand for more effective climate action comes as the Netherlands lags behind other European nations. The nation depends on fossil fuels for approximately 94 percent of its energy, with Rotterdam being one of the largest sources of CO2 in Europe. Although the port is a huge contributor to the city’s economy, its industries produce nearly 90 percent of Rotterdam’s CO2 emissions.

Major Challenges Ahead

Curtailing the port’s emissions would be challenging enough were the port not also growing. However, with the port nearing capacity, the Port Authority is currently developing a new nearly €3 billion (US$3.3 billion) deep water harbor and industrial area called Maasvlakte 2. For companies wanting to operate there, the port established environmental requirements related to air quality, noise, energy efficiency, reuse of waste heat and materials, and use of cleaner inland transport.

Alternative Fuels

To reduce the emissions of barges and vehicles operating in the port complex, the port built a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal where LNG is gasified with the help of waste heat from the new Uniper Maastvlatke 3 power plant. The port also planned to increase its wind power capacity to 300 MW and encouraged biofuels companies to move to the port.  

However, despite its efforts, the port merely held its CO2 emissions constant from 2005 to 2012 and made little progress in ramping up renewable energy production. Since 2012, though, the port’s wind capacity has increased significantly, and the port is planning to provide 14 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

The challenges facing the Port of Rotterdam illustrate the difficulties that large industrial areas face when trying to reduce emissions while also engaging in major energy-intensive growth and expansion.

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John J. Berger, PhD. is an energy and environmental policy specialist who has produced ten books on climate, energy, and natural resource topics. He is the author of Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to the Climate Crisis , and Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science , and is at work on a new book about climate solutions. Dr. Berger ( ) also founded and directed Restoring the Earth, Inc., a national nonprofit organization that fostered the repair of ecological damage through research, consulting, public policy development, ecosystem restoration, and public education. The group demonstrated to industry that restoration is a sound business practice and inspired the public to initiate numerous environmental activities. The organization's work led to the NRC's national study on aquatic restoration and influenced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to place greater emphasis on restoration and ecosystem management. Dr. Berger also co-founded other national nonprofit public interest organizations, such as the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Inc. of Washington, D.C. He holds a Ph.D. in Ecology from UC Davis, a Master’s in Energy and Resources from U.C. Berkeley, and a bachelor’s in political science from Stanford University. Follow John J. Berger on Twitter:

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