Dutch extol virtues of voluntary agreements

Government reports success in covenant approach, encourages other countries to follow suit

Cooperation and negotiation between industry and authorities is a more effective means of achieving ambitious environmental goals than imposing regulations, the Dutch government argues, in a book profiling ten years' experience with the approach in the Netherlands.

First published in Dutch in the spring, the book has been the centrepiece of a nation-wide tour and conference organised by the environment ministry to inform the public of what had been achieved since the publication of the country's first national environmental policy plan in 1989. This heralded the start of its "target group policy" under which sectors of society - industry, transport, agriculture, consumers - are being asked to shoulder greater responsibility for achieving national environmental goals. Some sectors of industry have gone as far as undertaking voluntary agreements or "covenants" to achieve set targets.

The decision to publish the book in English reflects the extent of international interest in the Dutch covenant approach, also called the "green polder model". Enquiries have come from as far afield as Chile, according to the head of the environment ministry's industry division Cees Moons, who has led the book project.

Neither has the Dutch government fought shy of encouraging other countries to follow its example. It is no coincidence that during its presidency of the EU last year, environment ministers endorsed a European Commission report recognising negotiated agreements as a valid way of meeting environmental objectives both at EU level and nationally as a way of complying with EU directives.

The first EU level negotiated agreements have since been agreed with washing machine and television manufacturers (ENDS Daily 30 September 1997), and most recently with the car industry (ENDS Daily 6 October).

In "Silent Revolution," the government says it is possible for other countries to follow its lead but warns that covenants are not "a universal panacea". Mr Moons points to the prevailing culture and the size of a country as two factors likely to influence whether covenants will work. "It can be very difficult to move from a situation of conflict as there is under traditional command and control legislative systems to one of trust between authorities and companies."

The book also acknowledges the challenges that lie ahead in the Netherlands. NGOs concede that the covenant approach has worked. Companies have kept to their word in publishing environmental plans specifying what their contribution to sectoral agreements will be and emissions of key pollutants have come down.

But according to Jan Henselmans of the Netherlands Society for Nature and the Environment, that was the easy part. "Now we face the more difficult problems, which require structural changes by companies." He points to a failure to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2) as key challenges that will require technological breakthroughs and fundamental changes in business activity to achieve. "We will see if covenants will succeed also in this phase - we think additional instruments are likely to be needed."

Follow Up:
Dutch environment ministry, tel: +31 70 339 3939. References: "Silent Revolution".

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