Many different scenarios are possible for a low-CO2 energy system that delivers an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It is certain that such a system will be very different from the present one, and that this will require a comprehensive and prolonged process of change. Developing innovative technologies will take many decades, as will the replacement of existing products and processes with new products and processes and the development of the associated production chains and infrastructure. Companies involved in these processes rely strongly on one another for a return on their investments and therefore take a cautious approach. As a result, a time frame of 40 years is considered narrow.

The transition to a clean economy in the Netherlands by 2050 will be based on four pillars: reduced energy demand, the use of biomass, carbon capture and storage, and zero CO2 emissions from electricity generation (wind, solar and nuclear energy) in combination with a larger share of electricity in the total energy consumption (electrification). Failure to apply any one of these could result in excessive pressure on the other three. Given the many uncertainties surrounding the implementation of each of these pillars to their maximum capacity, this would present a high-risk strategy.

Based on moderate economic growth and taking into account current policy, the energy demand in 2050 could be almost 15% higher than it is now. However, a strict energysaving policy may be able to realise a further reduction of 30%. To achieve such a ?? reduction, it will probably be necessary to implement also expensive savings measures, supplemented to a limited extent with behavioural change.

Without the implementation of biomass, emission reductions of 80% will be close to impossible. The Netherlands will probably need to import biomass, although there is great uncertainty about a sustainable global supply. The higher the demand for biomass, the higher the risk of increases in greenhouse gas emissions due to indirect land-use changes.

Biomass is preferably used to produce liquid biofuels and green gas. These can be used in sectors for which there are few or very uncertain alternatives in 2050, such as in aviation, road freight, small industry and existing buildings. There are many clean alternatives for electricity generation, which makes it less favourable to apply in power stations into the future vision.

Combining biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS) in fuel production is important as this makes it possible to achieve negative emissions (carbon sequestered from the atmosphere is first stored in plants and trees, then finally ends up underground). This can be used for compensating residual emissions that are difficult to remove entirely, such as non-CO2 greenhouse gases from agriculture.  [See Editor’s Note, below]

Carbon capture and storage is also highly relevant for large industrial plants and power stations. The Netherlands has a fairly large storage capacity in empty gas fields, but this will not be sufficient for the potential demand under various system scenarios. There are very large aquifers in the north-western part of the North Sea which may have sufficient capacity to meet the needs of the whole of Europe for the coming decades.  However, the lack of experience in filling such storage reservoirs to maximum capacity means that there is still considerable uncertainty regarding actual storage capabilities, in particular with regard to aquifers.

Wind turbines, nuclear power stations and solar panels do not produce any direct greenhouse gas emissions. They also have the potential to produce much more than the current electricity demand in the Netherlands. This, in combination with a shift in energy demand from fuels to electricity, could provide a basis for a clean system. The use of electrical heat pumps and electric vehicles are also part of the electrification scenario. It may also be possible to convert any temporary surplus of electricity into hydrogen. The technologies named, therefore, will make a significant contribution in 2050, although it would be going too far to say that any single technology will be indispensable.

A disadvantage of these technologies as far as electricity generation is concerned, and this applies in particular to wind and sun, is the limited control over supply. This makes it difficult to match supply to demand. One effective solution strategy would be to increase the interconnection with the rest of Europe, and possibly North Africa. At this scale, supply and demand patterns would level out, to some degree, and pumped storage could also be used as an additional balance strategy. However, the construction of a pan-European electricity grid will require the cooperation of all European countries, and this will not be an easy task. One alternative which would give the Netherlands more control would be to convert any surplus of clean electricity into energy carriers, such as hydrogen or hydrocarbons.

The total direct annual cost in 2050 of an energy system that produces a maximum of 45 Mt in greenhouse gas emissions is projected to be between 0 and 20 billion euros more, annually, than under a continued use of current technologies. Costs cannot be determined more accurately due to uncertainties around cost levels of many still developing technologies combined with changes in the price of fossil fuels and biomass. Capital costs for energy supply and energy-saving measures are expected to increase, and fuel costs to decrease. There will also be a significant decrease in the dependence on oil, gas and coal. These probably higher direct costs may be offset by positive external effects on health and ecosystems and savings related to the avoidance of climate change damage and the costs of adaptation. However, this is not explored any further in this report or included in the results.

The various technologies that may play a significant role in 2050 (e.g. biomass gasification, carbon capture and storage, and vehicles running on electric motors) will not be required to achieve the policy goals for 2020. Their still relatively high costs mean that they are not suited to a cost-effective approach in the short term. However, innovation policy that focuses on these technologies and associated systems is required now in order to achieve the goal for 2050.

Technology learning is largely an international process. Participation by the Netherlands in this process it is not necessary for all new technologies. However, delaying the process for too long will mean that these technologies are less likely to be used to their full potential in the Netherlands by 2050. After all, experience with implementation and maintenance of new technologies also has to take place on a national level.

Further exploration of the pathway towards a clean economy is up to stakeholders and government. However, specific attention should be paid to the further implementation of innovative technologies, suitable funding mechanisms, choice of instruments, cost distribution, new public–private partnerships, the scope for public initiatives and making use of new market opportunities. In doing so, it is essential that international developments are also explored. Neighbouring countries (in particular, Germany, the United Kingdom and Denmark) provide useful examples, and it may be beneficial to strengthen cooperation with these countries.

Editor’s Note: Any plans for offsetting GHG emissions, especially for methane, are critical for Ireland since it has committed to a substantial increase by 2020 in agricultural output, in part resulting from the EU’s lifting of the cap on the dairy sector.  A substantial growth in agricultural exports will have a debilitating effect on efforts to limit GHG emissions unless some offset is firmly established.  See, e.g., Food Harvest 2020 at



The Report is a summary from the report: PBL/ECN 2011, Exploration of pathways towards a clean economy by 2050, How to realise a climate-neutral Netherlands, The Hague: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Authors:  Jan Ros, Robert Koelemeijer, Hans Elzenga, Jeroen Peters (all PBL) Michiel Hekkenberg (ECN) and Peter Bosch (TNO).

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