This is an article by the Green Office, written by Daniel MacRae and Hubert Matuszewski
Having a positive effect on the city; through actively participating in climate events and being politically engaged, can be a struggle. As we discussed in the previous article, we, as students, have found it cumbersome to get involved in the Gemeente's plans and policies. As a result, we live in a city where we have very little impact on policy, making it very difficult for us to make significant contributions to reducing our emissions.
Let's take a recent example, the Groenplan ("Greenplan"); an initiative to create more green spaces throughout the city. They aim to add 30,000 m2 of better and more accessible 'green space' (green space being defined as trees, plants, grass and parks; we assume) each year, as well as plant 1,000 trees annually for the next ten years.
The plans to build green spaces and plant trees are intended to counteract the heat island effect in urban areas. They could prove useful in mitigating the extremely hot summers, thus improving the quality of life in the city (we all like the shade on a hot day, don't we folks). Some other benefits that the plan suggests are maybe not as useful.
For instance, while, yes, green spaces and trees are useful as climate adaptation strategies, they won't have a significant impact on mitigating emissions, which the Groenplan seems to suggest they do. Doing some rough math, the 10,000 trees they plan to plant will absorb about 220,000 kg of CO2 every year (however, only once they are fully grown). This is, well..., insufficient, in comparison to the 1.5 billion kilograms that were emitted in Groningen in 2016. We feel that trying to advertise planting trees to 'reduce emissions' is, at best, false advertising.
But that's just a bit of nitty-gritty, the Gemeente has other plans to mitigate its emissions and be carbon-neutral by 2035, so I'll reserve judgement on those for now (aside from all of that other judgement you've just read). What really concerned us about the Groenplan was the repeated claim that they would work with all relevant stakeholders. Fresh from finishing our paper on Groningen as a 'sustainable student city', we were bemused by the complete lack of mention of students, who make up 25% of the city's population.
And although students are the most passionate in the climate movement, the Groenplan just... doesn't mention them. At all.
We concluded in our paper that students, especially internationals, need greater control over their housing situation, and more influence on local political matters. We feel that addressing these things could also offer them more opportunities to make more significant lifestyle changes towards acting more environmentally-friendly. Yes, students are only here for a few years, but how can they be expected to integrate with the local community when shunned out of political processes (or engage in political processes without being integrated)? Or does the Gemeente simply want us to leave after a few years? It is likely that a large section of the student population is already expecting to leave after their degree, however Groningen doesn’t really make much of a case for why they should indeed stay after their studies. Doesn’t the Gemeente have something to gain by retaining a larger proportion of people after their studies?
The same holds true for the most part for the minorities and disadvantaged communities we discussed in the paper, arguing that the other two pillars of sustainability (social and economic) must be considered to achieve environmental sustainability. Plans to achieve CO2 neutrality by 2035 are ambitious by themselves, but gains can be made by properly involving the community. It’s quite hard to achieve carbon neutrality when a large portion of the population hasn't gotten the memo.
So those are our main concerns; the Groenplan isn't really a climate mitigation plan, and it doesn't at all involve students, let alone international students; a significant portion of the population. But there's one more thing here. The Groenplan was only published in Dutch – in a city that boasts about its internationality. If that's not a clear symbol they aren't working towards involving internationals, then let us know what is.
In April, we sent these concerns to the Gemeente, and in June, they published responses to all of the feedback they received from the public. But not ours; was it because our two-page response was in English? I'm not saying it was, but I also won't deny it. One quick, polite email to the Gemeente later; we got an apology; and a month later, some feedback on our concerns. Here's a summary of that (translated from Dutch, of course):
On the Groenplan not having a significant impact on mitigating emissions:
"The Groenplan also mentions many other measures that can contribute to this. The municipality has drawn up a roadmap to be CO2 neutral by 2035. This means that we are focusing on, for example, more solar and wind energy, are working on a heat network and are also committed to making homes more sustainable."
Fair enough, the Groenplan is oriented more towards mitigating the impacts of climate change.
On (international) students' housing situations:
"We suggest that (international) students can certainly contribute to the greening of the city. The fact that they have insufficient control over their living situation to make a meaningful contribution does not necessarily depend on this."
"The housing vision indicates that we are committed to realizing more homes. For example, we are focusing on adding extra housing for students. We also consider sustainable development of homes important. As included in the green plan, we will make a nature-inclusive building scheme to promote biodiversity in and around buildings."
Not much about how affordable that new housing would be, or if the new sustainable housing would even be for students.
And finally, on how the Groenplan shows a lack of integration of international students by only being available in Dutch:
"The municipality cannot tackle the greening task alone. We have to do this together with residents, entrepreneurs and social organizations. We also invite (international) students to make their contribution. Whenever there is reason to involve (international) students, this may be one of the possibilities."
"May be one of the possibilities" doesn't sound very enthusiastic; on the contrary, almost angsty. They'll also 'invite' international students, but not actually put much effort in making the relevant information easily available for them. Sure, every now and then I translate a bank document or some mail into English for friends to help them understand what's going on. But internationals simply cannot be expected to figure out a 100-page policy proposal. Also, it is interesting that they'll involve internationals "whenever there is reason to". That necessity lies at the eye of the beholder, and could basically be never for all we know.
Despite these challenges, to participate in larger, city-wide initiatives, it is still important to try and overcome these obstacles. As often as you can, try to participate in local policy decisions, respond to proposals, and engage with the relevant authorities. The result may not be what you want it to be, and it may take a while, but be persistent, involve others and keep up the pressure on the Gemeente. Who knows, maybe one day you can read the 100-page report about planting trees, in English! What a utopian society that would be.