Aniek Moonen: 'Use Generation Test to Determine Strategy'

Aniek Moonen: 'Use Generation Test to Determine Strategy'
As Chair of the Jonge Klimaatbeweging (the Youth Climate Movement in the Netherlands), Aniek Moonen represents a generation that is certain to experience the effects of climate change. That is why she is calling upon politicians and businesses to take action now. ‘The long-term perspective needs to play an increasingly important role. That way, we can minimize the pain of climate change for today’s generation and for future generations.’

About fifteen minutes after our appointment on Teams ought to have begun, we catch sight of Aniek Moonen on our screen, walking along with her headphones on, looking for a quiet spot. As she bobs along the streets, she explains that she is currently in the Rotterdam district of Bospolder-Tussendijken, where she has just recorded a podcast about the effects of climate change on the local population, apologizing for the fact that it ended up taking longer than planned. A few minutes later, she has sat down on a bench in front of a house (with the residents’ permission) and asks whether the interviewer is OK about holding the discussion in that unusual location – which for Aniek Moonen’s generation is probably a completely normal thing. 

As Chair of the Youth Climate Movement (JKB), a collaborative association of around 60 young people’s organizations, Moonen fulfils the role of a mouthpiece, expressing the views of young people in the context of the climate debate. ‘We are a lobbying organization that not only sets out to ensure that climate policies are as ambitious as possible, but that they are drawn up as much as possible with young people in mind. In short, our aim is to achieve generational equality and an equitable approach towards climate change. What we want is for rapid action to be taken to minimize climate change and to mitigate its effects on today’s generation and future generations. But that will only be successful if all policy decisions take as much account as possible of the long-term effects of those decisions.’

Who do you expect to take action?
‘In principle, everyone, but at the present time we are looking to identify those areas where we will have the greatest impact and those areas where the impact is currently insufficient. Certain groups, such as young people, have a relatively small sphere of influence and are therefore less able to get things done. Politicians and company directors, on the other hand, have a much larger sphere of influence, so we expect them to do more. For that matter, it is striking how often people working in government, politics or in the business sector tend to point their finger and say that “politicians” or “the business sector” need to take action, while ultimately, they too can also take a look and see how they can utilize their influence as an employee or employer in the most effective possible way.’

Politics is the main target of the Youth Climate Movement’s lobbying. What action are you expecting the government to take?
‘We actually have an entire wish-list and as a result of our lobby, two items on that list – the generation test and the Climate Authority – have now been included in the coalition agreement. The generation test means that new laws and budgets need to be assessed to determine the effects they will have on younger and on future generations, so that the long-term effects of the decisions we are taking at the present time are charted more effectively. The Climate Authority is a scientific advisory panel that helps the government consider how we are going to achieve our climate objectives and what policies will be needed for this. When it comes to strengthening our ability to take action, each of these initiatives will potentially provide significant added value. They are intended to enable politicians to actually do what is necessary, because in our view, the government is still too hesitant and slow to respond. While it is true that the ambition has never before been as high as it is right now, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” While we, along with the rest of the Netherlands, are waiting to see how the coalition agreement will be implemented in practice, we are certainly not standing still.’

The corporate governance code for stock-exchange listed companies explicitly states that companies must develop a sustainable strategy focusing on long-term value creation. Is that already happening to a sufficient degree when it comes to addressing the climate problem?
‘To be honest, awareness of the major challenge we are now facing and the role that companies ought to be playing in that regard is still fairly low. A study carried out by the UK-based organization Hanover Research showed that fewer than half of CEOs in the United Kingdom were able to come up with a definition of net zero, in other words, climate neutrality. The picture in the Netherlands is probably not that different. That is also borne out by the fact that within many companies, sustainability is still a separate department. Sustainability is, as it were, the responsibility of the Sustainability Manager, while what is actually needed is an integrated approach.
So that the topic can become firmly embedded within the company as a whole, all employees – from cleaners and secretaries to managers – should be required to take part in a number of seminars or workshops on topics relating to sustainability. If everyone knows what they need to do in order to contribute towards sustainability in their own job, companies will find it easier to implement their plans.’

Do company directors view contributing towards a solution to the climate problem as a sufficiently high priority?
‘If you ask them whether climate targets and sustainability are a priority, their response will frequently be “Yes”. But are these topics being given sufficient priority so that steps are actually taken, and the company’s entire business model overhauled? No. In the eyes of shareholders, profitability and value creation are still the most important factors. There are companies that say that they genuinely wish to contribute towards the energy transition, while at the same time prioritizing their investments in projects based on the cost recovery period. This means that sustainable projects will end up at the bottom of the list. As soon as it becomes necessary to cut costs, the projects at the bottom of the list will then be scrapped, despite the fact that they are the only choices that make sense and are more profitable in the long term. Even though those companies are saying that the energy transition is a priority, what they are doing in practice is telling us otherwise.’

What needs to happen in order to break through this pattern of behavior?
‘The strategic plans of the majority of companies span a period of three to five years. Success is then measured against what has been achieved during that period. Our organization is making the case that the long-term perspective ought to play an ever greater role. If a generation test were to be introduced in the business sector and it was applied to all initiatives arising from the strategic plan in such a way that not only the potential long-term effects on our climate, but also topics such as social equality or diversity can be charted effectively, it would then be possible for the outcomes to be included in the decision-making process. The decisions that are taken would then be different and more sustainable. Within the government, there is now a realization that a generation test of that type is necessary, but it ought to work just as effectively in the business sector.’

Should the government regulate the business sector more strictly, such as by making a generation test obligatory?
‘In an ideal scenario, I believe that the role of the government should mainly involve setting parameters, while the implementation itself remains the responsibility of the business sector itself. Given the extent of the challenge and the short amount of time that remains, I do take the view that the government and our politicians must push the business sector along the right road as much as possible, for example, by adjusting the tax system so that materials are more heavily taxed than labor.
I am also curious to learn more about the tailored agreements, which were announced in the coalition agreement and which the government aims to conclude with the 10 to 20 largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Those agreements must not be too non-committal. My hope is that major corporate organizations will show that they are ready to set a target date and not renege on it afterwards. Those tailor-made agreements should not lead to a situation in which in the near future, millions of euros in subsidies are provided to large industrial concerns bringing in billions of euros in annual profits, simply because they have claimed they are unable to finance the energy transition from their own funds. The right approach would be to try as much as possible to help those companies that genuinely lack the resources to finance the energy transition themselves.’

Activist organizations such as Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) that are trying to protect our climate are increasingly directing their activities at specific companies. Those actions include taking companies to court, as in the case of Shell. Is that a suitable approach in your view?
‘I think it is a shame that the word “activist” has a negative connotation. I see myself as an activist. I also regard the European Commissioner, Frans Timmermans, and the Dutch Minister for Climate and Energy Policy, Rob Jetten, as activists. An activist is someone who is not afraid to question the existing order. The fact that Friends of the Earth Netherlands is trying to challenge the established order and call it to account is right and extremely necessary. At the same time, there needs to be a balance between activism and constructive dialog, and that is something that the Youth Climate Movement is also trying to achieve. If politicians do something we genuinely do not agree with, we will not only point out what is wrong, but we will always try to come up with a solution and offer to contribute our thoughts. Simply continuing to oppose something is not the best way forward, nor is simply continuing to talk. It is a matter of finding a happy medium.’

How did your own involvement in climate issues originate or develop?
‘The honest answer is that up to the age of nineteen, I hardly gave it a thought. In the small village in the province of North Brabant where I come from, it was not an issue. Nor was any attention paid to climate issues at school. The first time I came into contact with climate issues was during my bachelor’s degree program at University College The Hague, when I had to follow compulsory modules in “Earth, Energy and Sustainability.” Only then did I realize how significant an impact climate change is having and that my own future would not automatically be a bed of roses. At the time, it felt very much like a slap in the face. Since then, I have been getting more deeply involved in it all the time.
A second moment of awakening occurred during the time I spent studying in Santa Barbara, California, in a period when half of the state had literally been destroyed by forest fires, causing the parents of some of my university friends to lose their homes. As far as climate change is concerned, you could literally feel it in your lungs when you went onto the street. From that point on, looking the other way was no longer an option and I decided to devote the rest of my life to climate change. After returning to the Netherlands and completing my studies, joining the Youth Climate Movement was a logical step, initially as a committee member and, since October 2021, as Chair.’

Earlier on, you said that you expect everyone to take some sort of action. Do you get the impression that young people of your generation are broadly aware of the issues? Are they prepared to alter their travel habits and consumption patterns, for example?
‘In principle, yes. Research has shown that a large percentage of the younger generation is aware of climate change, thinks it is extremely bad and, in some cases, loses sleep over it. Young people have said that they are willing to alter their behavior, but at the same time have no clear idea of what they need to do. From the few hundred euros they earn each month, they can just about afford to pay their rent and buy food. So if you can take a holiday flight for 30 euros while a train ticket would cost you 300 euros, that poses a real dilemma for them.
The same thing applies with regard to their consumption pattern. A survey among the 100,000 young people who are our members showed that in the future, 80 percent of them do not necessarily wish to own a car. At the same time, I am also fully aware that if they do buy a car or are given one by their employer, the same young people will get used to the convenience of a car and would no longer willingly give it up. The question is therefore what we can do to ensure that those 80,000 young people do not buy a car.’

What would your answer to that question be?
‘I would partly look to the government for a solution. Without good public transport, people are more likely to decide to own a car. And as far as holiday flights are concerned, the fact that a train ticket costs three to five times more than an airline ticket is certainly a problem. Only national or international policy will be able to ensure that the good, sustainable choice is always cheaper and is therefore as accessible as possible. Other than that, better information is also needed. Young people have indicated in very large numbers that they would like to work for a company that is having a positive impact. On a practical level, however, many of them do not always apply for jobs with the most sustainable companies, but with the companies that produce the best marketing campaigns highlighting how sustainable they are. If, after a few months, those young people discover that, in reality, working for that particular employer is not going to enable them to contribute towards a better, nicer world, they will vote with their feet. We therefore need to get better at identifying which companies are genuinely sustainable and how young people can judge this for themselves.’

What choices do you make yourself with regard to our climate? For example, will you never travel by air again?
‘I do not believe you can ever say never. In my view, a more realistic approach would be to avoid flying as much as possible. I try to ensure that the choices I make in all sorts of areas are as sustainable as possible. As long as I continue to live in the Rotterdam-Amsterdam area, I cannot imagine ever buying a car. For a few years, I tried following a vegan diet, but in the end, it was not ideal for me, so I do eat fish, eggs and cheese every now and then. I try to travel as little as I can and prefer not to fly, but the COP 27 in November this year is taking place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. If I travel there, I may go by plane but will be sure to offset my carbon footprint.’

This article was published in Management Scope 05 2022.

This article was last changed on 25-05-2022