KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The image of the Netherlands, filled with bicycles and windmills, would suggest a country powered by sustainable energy. But the Dutch are almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels, including imported coal. It has taken pressure from the European Union and the courts for the government to change that. Joanna Kakissis reports from Rotterdam.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The Port of Rotterdam is the biggest in Europe, stretching 25 miles and serving tens of thousands of ships from all over the world. The sea breeze also carries a whiff of burning. There are five oil refineries here and two new coal-fired power plants. Rotterdam's sustainability manager, Fred Akerboom, explains how those plants affected the city's carbon dioxide emissions.
FRED AKERBOOM: Those two coal-fired plants, together they produce around 10 megatons of CO2. So that's really something. The harbor is producing around 20 percent, one-fifth, of all CO2 emissions of the whole of Holland. There's really a causal relation.
KAKISSIS: The European Union has cut CO2 emissions 23 percent since 1990, but in the Netherlands they've risen by 20 percent. That's why the Dutch environmental group Urgenda sued the government in 2013 on behalf of 900 citizens.
MARJAN MINNESMA: We have won this climate case.
KAKISSIS: That's Urgenda's director, Marjan Minnesma.
MINNESMA: So the Dutch government has to reduce 25 percent CO2 in 2020. That means that they have to do more. And the most easy thing to do is to phase out the coal-fired power plants because then at once you have an enormous reduction.
KAKISSIS: She points out the window to a huge coal plant visible from her office in Amsterdam.
MINNESMA: Because coal is so cheap and gas is now more expensive, we have been using more coal than we did before. We'd rather have a cheap energy system than a more expensive renewable system.
KAKISSIS: Only 6 percent of Dutch power comes from renewable energy, one of the lowest percentages in the EU. And those two coal plants at Rotterdam, they just opened in the last couple of years with a plan to lower emissions using something called CCS.
AKERBOOM: That's carbon capture and storage.
KAKISSIS: Fred Akerboom.
AKERBOOM: It's also used in some states in America, and it's used in Australia. But it's really a quite new technique.
KAKISSIS: It works by capturing CO2 at its source and then storing it underground. But it's expensive, and though the EU has already spent at least half a billion dollars on CCS, Jonas Helseth of the energy nonprofit Bellona says using it to clean up coal is not a good investment.
JONAS HELSETH: Because we might actually not need those coal plants in the future. Renewable electricity production is rapidly becoming competitive with fossil fuel electricity production.
KAKISSIS: So Akerboom was not surprised when the German and French power companies running the Rotterdam coal plants dropped CCS this summer.
AKERBOOM: Those companies also see that coal is not a future anymore. Coal has to be phased out. It's all about money, of course. There's a lot of discussion in Europe, but also in the Netherlands, about how sustainable coal is.
KAKISSIS: The Dutch government announced in October that all coal-fired power plants would close by 2030, joining about a dozen European countries phasing out coal.
SJOERD VAN SCHOONEVELD: That's positive. That's a big step forward.
KAKISSIS: Retired aid worker Sjoerd Van Schooneveld was a plaintiff in the climate lawsuit against the Dutch government. He gets that global warming is much bigger than his tiny country, but he wants it to lead by example and embrace renewable energy. He lives in Rotterdam, much of which lies below sea level.
VAN SCHOONEVELD: OK, maybe we are clever enough to keep making high dikes. But could this go on forever?
KAKISSIS: That's not a bet he thinks his country should make. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Rotterdam.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW APPLEPIE'S "LITTLE FEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.