Project Perspectief van VROM

Author: P. Heistein 29-7-2018

Project Perspective

In 15 years of work at One Planet Foundation, one project stands out as the most inspiring and hopeful we have ever seen. It has enormous implications and the potential to change Dutch society like no other initiative. That is perhaps why in 2005, the government quietly hid this project away. Yet it is so significant, we will explain it carefully.

Project Perspective was an internal project run by the Dutch Ministry of Housing from 2003-2005. It is little known inside the sustainability network, and not at all outside it. I learned about it by chance from someone who was involved in the project. Then I read the project files and was filled with amazement. It was a blueprint for moving to a low-carbon society. When I enquired why so little was known about this revolutionary Project Perspective, I was told that the senior government official who had commissioned the project had quietly placed it in the back drawer, and cautioned the project leader that he’d overstepped the mark. Why was this? It was because Project Perspective was too far ahead of its time. The message it delivered did not suit powerful farmers’ interests and business lobbies and had not been cleared for publication by the ruling political parties.

The strange twist is, this project was initiated and run by the government itself, by what was then known as VROM, or the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. By the early 2000’s it became clear that The Netherlands was not going to achieve her 1992 Kyoto CO2-reduction targets without some creative bookkeeping. The government wanted to investigate what would be necessary to get the average Dutch family or household to adopt a low-carbon climate-friendly lifestyle. VROM therefore set up and financed a social-economic test for three years and called it Project Perspective. They wanted to find out what incentives, adaptations and support systems were needed to get Dutch households to reduce their energy consumption to meet the Kyoto targets.

Twelve middle-of-the-road families, who were all working and living in normal houses and were representative of Dutch society, were offered a 20% subsidy on top of their proven income, if they would live for three years on a carbon budget of at least 40% reduction. This carbon budget covered everything the household and its members did and purchased both inside and outside the home. This was monitored and carefully recorded by the project workers. But the participants were also required to spend that extra 20%, so it was not a subsidy that they could save up or add to their bank balances. They would emerge from the three-year trial without being any richer or poorer, but with the experience of living with far less CO2-emissions.

Since the carbon Footprint of every person is directly determined by how he or she spends money – on food, groceries, housing, furniture, energy, mobility, clothes, education, books, films, internet, leisure, entertainment, travel, insurance etc. – then having 20% more to spend will also mean a direct increase in carbon Footprint of 20%. However, the Project Perspective families achieved a lifestyle with 43% less carbon than their normal pattern before the project. Plus, they had spent the 20% extra income. Their real and measured carbon reduction, relative to other Dutch citizens of the same income, was over 60%!


This 60% reduction was a great achievement by ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, without any technological changes or adaptations to their houses or cars. This is what makes Project Perspective so hugely significant; the CO2-savings were made only by behavioural changes. There was no technology, home investments or waiting time required to start a low-carbon lifestyle. Ordinary people were able to go low-carbon immediately.

How did the Project Perspective participants do it?

  1. By spending more money on services, experiences and personal care, and less money on buying physical products. They did this by: eating out, education, entertainment, social activities, festivals, travel, films, books, lectures, reading, exhibitions, personal development, sport and exercise, grooming and body care, hiring cleaners to work for you, buying art, donating to good causes etc. This greatly reduced their carbon Footprint because services generally have a much lower carbon content than products. Shifting from goods to services is what economists call a ‘dematerialisation of the money stream.’ A big side-benefit of dematerialisation is that spending money on experiences, care and services, makes people happier than buying goods.

Since dematerialisation of the money-stream has a double benefit - better for the environment and happier people - it becomes a challenge to resist the advertising that encourages us to keep buying products we don’t need. Having more ‘stuff’ doesn’t make us any happier. This author visited the renowned ‘Professor of Happiness’, Ruut Veenhoven at Erasmus University before he retired. Ruut has studied happiness in different cultures for over 40 years. He has shown that, while Dutch citizens score high on the happiness scale worldwide, they are no happier now that they were in the 1960’s, when we had far fewer material goods and consumed about one quarter the energy per person as in 2017. The American-led culture of consumerism, powered by fossil fuels and materials, has brought the Western world no further in happiness since the 1960’s, yet it is destroying our environment and changed our atmosphere. What's more, figures show that, since the dawn of the industrial age, just 90 companies have caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions, led by US and British companies like Chevron, Exxon and BP.

2.  The second way the Project Perspective participants reduced carbon by over 60%, was by choosing carefully what they bought. They avoided energy-intensive products like meat, motorised transport, cut flowers and plants grown in heated greenhouses, and recreation activities that required a lot of energy – like flying, cruising and motor sports. The lesson of low-carbon living was to buy only what products the Perspective participants needed, and then to choose for high-quality goods that last a long time, and avoid waste and throw-away products. This required a change of behaviour. They needed to become consious, well-informed and selective buyers, spending their money as carefully as our grandparents did after the War.

This author spoke with one of the Family Coaches who was assigned to help the Project Perspective participants live within their carbon budgets. One family had a teenage daughter who wanted to take a job as an au-pair for a year in Australia. However, the flight from Amsterdam to Australia had a heavy carbon Footprint, which would have exceeded the family’s carbon budget. The family resolved this dilemma by selling their car in Holland and choosing for public transport and bicycles for the year their daughter was away. This freed-up enough carbon budget for their daughter to have her experience Australia. Once again, the Coaches only provided information and process-support, but the participants themselves made all their own choices, based on what was important for them.

Here are is some interesting newsletters about Project Perspective (unfortunately only in Dutch):  Nieuwsletters Perspectief

Over the last 15 years between 2003 and 2018, many new technologies have become available on the market, that were in 2003 either too expensive or not available at the time of Project Perspective. These include a wide variety of housing insulation materials, double and triple glazing, high-efficiency boilers, heat pumps, electric cars and bicycles, solar panels, green energy, bio-products etcetera. By applying these technologies, it is certain that another 20% CO2-savings could be achieved on top of the 60% savings that were achieved in Project Perspective. A new project could achieve, under the same circumstances with the same middle-of-the-road Dutch households, an 80% CO2 reduction, without any delay and with only a modest investment.

What did Project Perspective teach us about the system-requirements for a low-carbon lifestyle?

  • Monetary incentives: All parties agree; a price differential is required to get people to adopt a low-carbon lifestyle. Exactly how big this incentive needs to be, has not yet been investigated. Project Perspective used 20%. However, in 2003 sustainability was unknown to many people. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truthonly appeared in 2005 and brought public attention to sustainability. After that came the IPCC, Copenhagen, Paris and lately Katowice. By 2018, every businessperson, politician and citizen knows we must live and work more sustainably. The social and economic barriers to a low-carbon lifestyle are now much smaller than in 2003. An eco-friendly lifestyle is now widely respected and often admired, even if few people follow it. The final and most important hurdle to overcome before The Netherlands will move to a low-carbon society, is a price incentive that may perhaps now only need to be 5-7%.

This figure of 5-7% is my own guess that still needs to be substantiated. Studies of how innovations pass through society show a bell-curved distribution that starts with the 2.5% Innovators or Pioneers, then moves on to the 13.5% Early Adopters, 34% Early Majority, 34% Late Majority and finally the 16% Laggards and Die-Hards. Project Perspective was launched in 2003 at a time when only an Innovator had a sustainable lifestyle. A 20% financial incentive was then sufficient to get middle-of-the-curve Dutch families to become Innovators. In 2018,  Dutch society sits somewhere near the middle of the bell-curve. This means that over half the population is aware of, open to and supports the idea of eco-friendly living, even if they do not actively practice it. These people could be nudged from 'passively-sustainable' to 'actively-sustainable' behaviour, if there was a small financial incentive. Dutch people are very sensitive to price advantages!

As climate warnings increase, we may soon approach the stage where non-sustainable behaviour will be frowned upon by the average citizen. Like tax evasion, it will be seen as anti-social. Perhaps a 5-7% financial incentive will now be sufficient to get the 34% Late Majority on-board. When this happens, 84% of the population will be willing to change to a low-to-medium carbon lifestyle. The last 16% Laggards are not worth paying attention to, because the costs of getting them to change are higher than the rewards of converting this group. They will get ‘dragged along’ when the rest of society brands their fossil-based lifestyle as being socially irresponsible.

One Planet therefore believes that a 5-7% price advantage will now be sufficient to ‘swing’ The Netherlands to a low-carbon society. This price difference must be achieved by taxing fossils and by making polluters pay for their external costs. This is not a subsidy for green living, it is merely an allocation of the real costs where they belong. This requires the political will to stand up to vested interests in the fossil industry. It requires implementing:

  • A carbon-tax at source on every kilo of fossil fuel or hydrocarbon materials that is imported into The Netherlands. Coal would carry more tax than oil, because it has a higher carbon content. Oil has a higher carbon content than gas. And so on for all other fossil-based feedstocks and products.
  • A tax on every kilo of waste material that is not fully recycled, where the amount of tax varies according to the environmental severity or toxicity of those wastes.

It is easily within the government’s ability to implement a 5-7% carbon-tax that would entice 84% of the Dutch population adopt a low-carbon lifestyle. It does not even mean losing revenue, because the tax burden is shifted to fossils and wastes. It is very likely that nearly all citizens would support this change, if the carbon-tax applies equally and equitably to everyone.

What then stands in the way of a carbon-tax and the future welfare of our children? It is a sad fact that the climate debate in The Netherlands has been hijacked for nearly two decades by powerful lobby groups representing farmers, dairy and meat industries, fishermen, airlines, cement, energy utilities, plastics and packaging companies whose products are dependent on fossils and are environmentally harmful. Many fossil-dependent industries receive huge fiscal benefits that skew the economy in their favour – for example there is no tax on aircraft fuel. This makes it difficult for other forms of transport which are taxed, to compete against air travel. Yet air travel is far more energy intensive and polluting than other forms of transport. Special interest groups try to maintain the status quo and let society continue to pick up the bill for their external costs.

Sustainability is therefore a 'war' between what is best for society and citizens in general, and the vested interests of some privileged businesses sectors. Until now the Dutch governments gives priority to business interests. Sometimes Dutch citizen groups like Urgenda must appeal to the law courts for protection again their own government.

An argument often used by the CDA and VVD political parties to reject carbon taxes, is that it only makes economic sense to do things across the whole EU. The government will do nothing that could disadvantage Dutch businesses relative to their competitors in other countries. For example; they have resisted pressure to close coal-fired power stations by saying ‘We are only a small country, if we close down coal here, by ourselves, it will not prevent even one kilo of CO2 going into the atmosphere. It just means that Poland will increases its supply of electricity into the European grid to make up the shortfall, so we lose jobs here in Holland. And Polish coal stations are older and more inefficient and polluting than Dutch stations, so this policy would increase climate change. So, the best we can do is implement and even export our modern Dutch technology and innovation into the energy industry, then make agreements on coal across the whole EU.’ In this way, spin-doctors in the government try to rebrand the climate debate into a technology issue and a business opportunity. This diverts attention away from the uncomfortable truth that Holland has the lowest percentage of renewable energy of all 27 EU members except Malta.

  • Information is essential: the consumer can only choose products and services with a low carbon Footprint, if he or she is well-informed on their carbon content and environmental impact. In 2003, this information was not easy to come by and the Coaches who supported the Project Perspective families had to work hard to obtain the relevant information. This author spoke in 2006 with dr. Kees Vringer at the RIVM institute, who had completed a doctoral thesis on “The Energy requirement for Dutch Household Consumption.” Kees had obtained a great deal of highly specialised and specific information on nearly all products consumed in a Dutch household. Here are some examples: Energy for Dutch Household Consumption

This product information has therefore been available for nearly three decades now, but it is still not being shown on product packaging in easy-to-understand logo’s so the customer can make informed choices. Once again, special interest groups resist transparency. There is talk of carbon-tax, sugar-tax, plastic-taxes and other ‘bad product’ taxes but they always bog down in delays and in ‘ongoing talks between government and industry’ whereby the industry promises to self-regulate itself. Then the government agrees to an ‘evaluation period’ of several years. The result is that, one way or another, customers are still not able to see clearly in the supermarket which products have a high or low ecological Footprint. It will take strong intervention by the government to set rules mandating product labels so that customers who want to, can live a low-carbon life.


If one were to ask the average Dutch man or woman in the street in 2018 what sustainability means, he or she would probably answer ‘solar panels, electric cars and wind turbines.’ This is in some ways a tragic answer, because it shows how citizens have been 'brainwashed' over the last two decades by business and political interests into thinking that sustainability is a technical issue, requiring investment and innovation. Project Perspective demonstrated conclusively in 2005 that behavioural change and selective purchasing of low-carbon products provide 80% of the answer to reducing CO2-emissions. The government too, knew this long ago. But the meat and dairy industries and the CDA political party of farmers, did not want consumers to shift away from their meat and dry products. A cow standing in a Dutch polder, and cheese, are national symbols of Holland. Reducing these industries is very sensitive in the farming community. While the WNF hs always known that cows and meat are a leading cause of climate change, it was many years before their director, Johan van der Gronden, dared to ask very cautiously on television ‘Is it really necessary to eat meat every day?’

One can therefore conclude that business and especially farming interests in The Netherlands have hijacked the sustainability debate and hidden the real causes of climate change and environmental degradation. The government wanted to keep the fossil-based Dutch economy running at full speed. The ruling political party did not support the idea of consuming less meat, coal, cement and other economically important products. They wanted to shift attention away from lifestyle issues and behavioural change, onto technical issues. They wanted to rebrand sustainability as an ’innovative business opportunity’ that requires a return to the ‘VOC-mentality’ of the past. This smoke-screening has caused The Netherlands to waste nearly two decades in moving to a low-carbon economy. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics showed in 2017 that there has been no net reduction in Dutch CO2-emissions since Kyoto in 1992. This means 25 wasted years with zero progress! In fact, industrial CO2-emissions in 2016-2017 were the highest ever recorded. The Netherlands stands at the 26thlowest place in the percentage of renewable energy among the 27 EU-states. This result can be laid at the doorstep of short-term business interests and the political parties and lobby’s they support.

Project Perspective showed in 2003 how to achieve 60% reductions immediately with no investment. In 2018, the Dutch government now wants to achieve 49% reduction by 2030, requiring huge investments. And they still resist a general carbon tax. Few citizens realise how they have been hoodwinked by business interests.

But the picture is more nuanced, and this makes it hard for the man-on-the-street to see through the political smoke screens. On the one hand, the Dutch are first-class on sustainability when it comes to their bicycle culture and excellent public transport system. This is a model for the world. The Dutch are also world leaders in high-tech seeds, plant technology, agricultural machinery, food processing, water management and logistics. Their expertise in these fields helps the world to grow more food and to manage resources efficiently. These are great export industries. The Dutch are also gigantic exporters of processed foods. However, behind the scenes they also import vast amounts of animal feed to support their intensive livestock industry. This requires about 14 times the land area of The Netherlands, in countries like Brazil, Argentina and Indonesia. It causes devastation of tropical forests in other countries and creates a huge manure problem at home.

In summary, the Dutch need to:

  • Resist industry lobbyists and impose a 5% carbon-tax that applies equally and fairly on all products. Those products with a high embedded carbon footprint like animal proteins, coal and oil, cement, bricks, air travel, fishing, greenhouse and imported foods will pay more tax. Sectors with a low carbon content, like plants, bicycles, education, arts and services, can then surge ahead on a level playing field.
  • Do what Project Perspective should have taught us long ago, which is to change our behaviour, based on transparent product information. Behavioural change can bring a 60% reduction in CO2. Technology and innovation will provide another 20% reduction after that.

Project Perspective was revolutionary. The most stunning fact is that, when participants were interviewed two years after the program closed, they all looked back on their three years in the program from 2003-2005 as a period with an improved quality of life. What more could one wish for; a 60% reduction in CO2, with no delays or investments, and happier for it! But economic special-interest groups suppressed this project. Khrushchev once remarked about the short-sightedness of the the capitalistic system, "The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." One can also say, the shortsightedness of Dutch farming and business lobbies, could cause climate changes that drown the country they once saved from the sea.