The orchestra that can save the world

Sustainability starts with you: eat less meat and put on a sweater.

May 22, 2017

The Netherlands seriously needs to get to work in order to achieve European climate targets. Especially considering the alarming development in which a temperature rise of 2°C will destroy ecosystems and drastically limit food production. Yet many ideas for sustainability have yet to be exploited. How come?

"There’s an entire orchestra ready to play and the government has the conductor’s baton in its hand. Unfortunately, it’s only conducting the brass section. All the other instruments are ignored. I want to point out the musicians who are now watching on with nothing to do. Somehow, we have to produce a symphony together”, explains Theo Smits, energy and sustainability consultant at Heijmans. He moves in the circles where lines are drawn, and stands shoulder to shoulder with the people who implement policy. In his opinion, the Dutch government is focusing disproportionately on certain remedies, and decision-makers are overlooking other possibilities.


“They are gambling on only a few horses. If one of them stumbles, the consequences are great. And that can happen, for example in the absence of essential innovations.” 

As far as housing is concerned, the chosen horse is called Nul-op-de-meter (Zero on the meter). The government is using it as a means to move home-owners in the direction of better insulation, a fully electric home, and a roof with solar panels. Certainly these measures help, but they are not suitable for every situation.

A limited number of options

"We have to get away from the idea that we can come up with a solution that works everywhere. The housing market is extremely varied, as are the wishes of the owners. If you take all the variables into consideration and make a reasoned decision on how to use the available budget to prevent as much CO2 emissions as possible in a given situation, you don’t always arrive at the same answer.”

The Dutch government is steering construction companies and consumers in the direction of a limited number of options for sustainability. Applying these options has financial benefits, whether they are actually effective or not. “Isn’t it much more logical to reward the result?”

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Translation: Warm yourself and not the world! Warme Truiendag (Warm Sweater Day) is held in February of every year.

Do it yourself

As a member of the public how can you best contribute to sustainability? “By eating less meat. Livestock farming is the biggest source of greenhouse gases like CO2 and – even worse – methane. You could say that if you eat no meat on Friday, you can drive your car all week.”

His advice for making your home more sustainable is just as easy. “Buy a good pair of slippers and a warm sweater, so that you can keep the heating a few degrees lower.”

This is typical of the way Theo Smits thinks; he looks at the figures and then goes for the most efficient remedies. He believes meat consumption should also be reduced. “Meat is far too cheap now. The actual costs should be charged on. Let the polluter pay.”

Cowspiracy: the destructive impact of the meat industry
Cowspiracy: the destructive impact of the meat industry
Cowspiracy: the destructive impact of the meat industry

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about thick sweaters. If it is possible to turn up the thermostat, will most people put on a sweater? “Personally, I think it’s important to keep my house well ventilated and I prefer to put on a warm sweater. Some people go for optimum insulation and turn the heating to 20 degrees. What is comfort? I believe everyone should be free to make their own decisions.”

Revise the sustainability policy

Smits advocates a review of the 1979 Trias Energetica (Energy Triangle) – the theory on which the sustainability policy is based. This puts saving first, followed by sustainable generation and finally by the use of fossil fuels (as a last resort).


“The classic Trias Energetica takes no account of home comfort. We are heading for a world in which we have an abundance of clean energy, so why are we still putting saving energy first?”

“Start with making a list of living requirements, establish how much energy is needed for them, and then satisfy that need completely sustainably. Based on this mind-set, we can find the best solution for every situation, whether it is urban or rural, new built or renovation.”

"Trial projects with Nul-op-de-meter homes have shown the importance of comfort. If the owner thinks that the ventilation system is inadequate, he will just open the window. The calculated energy consumption is not always the actual outcome."

Why no biomass?

Let’s get back to the orchestra. Urged on by the conductor, the brass section dominates the music. So which sounds go unnoticed by the general public? “Biomass remains totally ignored, even though it would be an excellent solution for the Netherlands.”

“With solar panels, you have an abundance of energy in the summer. In Southern Europe, this solution might work in the long term, however in Northern Europe winter causes a problem. In the dark months, you consume energy to heat your home. That’s not the solar energy that you supplied to the grid in the summer, because we are not yet able to store that efficiently. The reality is that a lot of the heat needed in the winter in Nul-op-de-meter homes comes from coal.”

“In fact, you are just moving the emissions from one to place to another – from your own chimney to the one at the power station. The same home with a gas connection would emit fewer greenhouse gases.”

“With a high-efficiency wood pellet-fuelled stove, you can heat your house in the winter in a comfortable way. It’s entirely CO2-neutral, after all, wood is stored solar energy. If we used 10% of the agricultural land in the Netherlands for sustainable forestry, we could keep every home in the country warm in a comfortable way.”

So why does biomass get so little attention? “We live in a time of opinions and sound bites. The public is swayed by whoever tells his story in the most convincing way.”


Wood pellets for a biomass boiler.

Discuss ideas openly

“This is a game that experts play. They present their visions as if they have to compete with other ideas on sustainability. Policy makers do not have the know-how to put everything in perspective.”

So how do we make progress? “As experts, we should discuss our ideas openly, and calculate what they cost and what they deliver. Then we can present our conductor with a complete composition.”

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