Culture and Climate Change – Architecture and Urbanism

An Urgent Warning

Sitftung Urgenda© Urgenda Foundation

An Urgent Warning

Since the climate doesn’t wait for politics to catch up, Marjan Minnesma is changing the world herself. With her Urgenda foundation, she presses ahead on the energy revolution.

Summer, sun, sandy beaches—that is what most people associate with the Dutch mudflat resort of Texel. But its 14,000 islanders want to gain a reputation in another domain as well: By 2020, Texel is to be carbon-neutral. In terms of utilities, Texel wants to become a perfectly remote island, independent from mainland power and gas lines.

I’m already there,” says Peter Bakker, proudly pointing to the certificate on his hallway wall. "Texel's first energy-neutral house.” The Dutchman got rid of his boiler and replaced it with solar panels on the roof and a heat pump. He was also able to disconnect from the gas line: “I, for one, am no longer dependent on Putin!”

Dynamically toward neutrality

And he owes that to Marjan Minnesma. She is the director of Urgenda, a foundation that is helping the mudflat island achieve its ambitious goal. The tall, blonde, and highly dedicated woman is considered the Netherlands’ foremost sustainability activist. In a first project phase, she is encouraging 20 homeowners on Texel to remodel their homes to become energy-neutral. “It costs 35,000 euros per house,” she calculates. “That eliminates a monthly 180-euro utility bill, which means that after 15 years the cost will be offset and you won’t spend another dime on power and heating!”

Minnesma made a name for herself with projects like this one. Three times already the 49-year-old has given the alternative “sustainable King’s speech” at the annual opening of the Dutch parliament in September. And three times already she has been voted the number one most sustainable Dutch person in a top-100 ranking by renowned daily TROUW. “For her unrivalled dynamism and innovative ideas,” the jury explained.

Ambitious, possible, inevitable

The goal Minnesma set for herself is even more ambitious than the one for the island of Texel. The mission of Urgenda, which she founded in 2007, is to make the Netherlands independent from fossil fuels within 20 years, switching the entire country to 100 per cent sustainable energies.

That is possible—and we don’t have a choice, anyway!” the mother of three states. She holds degrees not only in business administration and law but also in philosophy, which she earned cum laude. No one can turn a blind eye to the epochal problem of global warming, she believes: “We are barrelling toward an abyss. We have to slam on the brakes!”

Critical, for our children’s sake

If we fail to do this, our planet will soon become a very uncomfortable place to live. Large parts of it are expected to become uninhabitable, ravaged by floods or droughts, such as in southern Spain or California. “It will bring war and conflict,” says Minnesma, who, after completing her three degrees, initially worked for research institutions and environmental organizations such as Greenpeace. “Can we do this to our children?” What will happen to them if we fail to act was put quite bluntly by IMF director Christine Lagarde at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2013: Our children will end up “roasted, toasted, fried, and grilled.”

We don’t have much time left, Minnesma keeps on warning during the roughly 200 lectures she gives each year. This is also reflected in the name of her foundation: Urgenda – urgent. She is peeved by apathetic citizens, reluctant executives, and hesitant politicians—especially Dutch ones. To her aggravation, the government in The Hague contents itself with raising the share of national energy use that is sustainable from a pathetic 4 per cent currently to 14 per cent by 2030. “Ridiculous! That puts us at the tail end of Europe!”

Change the world yourself

Minnesma does not waste any time waiting on politics. Instead, she rolls up her sleeves and leads by example: She brought the first electric cars to the Netherlands, in a couple of shiploads from Norway, which she sold to companies and local administrations who provided the necessary charging stations. Under the slogan “We want sun,” she imported 50,000 solar panels from China to equip schools, churches, and private households. All without subsidies, without bridging loans—because Dutch banks refused to issue them. The Chinese suppliers, however, granted her an extended payment deadline, while Dutch buyers advanced a part of the payment. Now she’s making sure that more and more houses become energy-neutral. Not only on Texel. Soon 100 urban households are to follow suit. “The negotiations are under way,” says Minnesma, who gets by on a mere five hours of sleep each night.

It goes without saying that she has her own solar-panelled roof, drives an electric car, feeds her family organic and sustainable fare, and never uses air travel to get to her vacation destinations.

Doesn’t she sometimes feel as if she were talking to a brick wall?

Luckily, more and more windows are opening in the wall!” she laughs, pointing to a Loesje poster in her office—a Dutch initiative that has garnered worldwide attention with its thought-provoking slogan: “Change the World – Get Started!”


    June 2015
    Netherlands, Amsterdam



    Kerstin Schweighöfer
    is a freelance foreign correspondent for German media in the Netherlands, reporting on the Benelux countries for the ARD public radio stations, for Deutschlandfunk, FOCUS and art magazine, among others.

    Translated by

    Kerstin Trimble

    Dutch version



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