Speech by His Majesty King Willem-Alexander during a dinner of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Amsterdam
Mr Oosterveer, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the kind invitation to be your guest this evening at your annual dinner. Not only to join you, but also to get the opportunity to make an active contribution. ‘Food for thought’. I couldn’t resist the offer, so bear with me for a few minutes.
As managers of multinationals, you are used to seeing things from a multidisciplinary and international perspective.
This is reflected in your council’s mission statement: ‘Creating a world in which nine billion people are living well, within planetary boundaries’…
It seems like you still see those ‘planetary boundaries’ as a given … but maybe that’s a question of time, once Elon Musk becomes a member.
Despite your universal ambitions, I would like to introduce you to my country first. After all: ‘all politics is local’.
The Netherlands. A country in Northwestern Europe. Relatively small (about twice the size of Tuscany). With a population of almost eighteen million.
We started out as a republic and transformed into a kingdom, against the trends of history.
The Netherlands is 18th largest economy of the world, with a GDP slightly less than Turkey but well above Saudi Arabia, number 19 on the list.
The origin of our prosperity can be traced to the 16th and 17th century, when ships from Amsterdam and other ports sailed the seven seas and Holland grew to become the most important commercial center of the world. We had the very first multinational: the Dutch East India Company. The very first stock exchange. And the very first financial bubble, which eventually burst in 1637. You might have heard about tulip mania. The tulip was the Credit Default Swap of the 17th century.
So, the Netherlands actually has 450 years’ experience in globalization.
We cherish our heritage that was a result from that particular era. The Amsterdam canal belt. The paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Our international orientation. The groundbreaking ideas of Hugo Grotius.
Despite all this, we have also become very much aware of the darker side of our history. Together with economic expansion came the large scale exploitation of people who were traded as slaves and were put to work in appalling conditions, both in the East Indies and in the West Indies.
Acknowledging the dreadful suffering it caused and redeeming ourselves is something that we are currently working on.
There is a second aspect that is relevant for those who want to really understand the Netherlands: that life in general and economic development are strongly connected to the environment. Caring for our living conditions has always been an absolute must.
Primarily living with water of course. Water is everywhere.
One third of our country lies under sea level, almost 7 meters at the lowest point.
Water management is fundamentally a Dutch ‘conditio sine qua non’.
On this tiny piece of the earth, the Dutch have been dealing with dams and dykes, ditches, locks and flood plains since the early middle-ages. Up until this very day, and with future plans that take 200 years as their horizon. Adaptation isn’t a modern concept connected to climate change. It’s part of our DNA.
Space for farming and livestock has been created by draining lakes and creating land. Thanks to that, and to an innovative spirit, our country has grown into an agricultural giant: our agricultural export totaled 122 billion euro in 2022, second only to the United States of America.
You can imagine that the various aspects I just described ultimately lead to a conflict of interest. How do you sustainably maintain these achievements?
With so many people in a limited space.
With a dynamic, open economy.
With high standards in living, well-being and health for all inhabitants.
With water needing, and otherwise taking, its space.
And a world-class agricultural sector that is confronted, among others, by new emissions targets that threaten its existence.
And I haven’t even talked about the challenges we are facing in the field of energy. In 1959, we discovered the largest natural gas field in Europe. Natural gas became our prime energy source. But now – two generations down the line – we are being forced to reduce our dependence on this particular source of fossil fuel.
The ambitions you yourselves have expressed as members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are very similar to those in the Netherlands.
Sustainability is a frequently used word that is not always fully understood. I still find its definition in the 1987 Brundtland Report very inspiring in its simplicity: “Sustainable development meets the need for the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This definition challenges us to ask ourselves how our own behavior will affect future generations. Our children, and their children.
When the Brundtland Report was published, the earth was populated by 5 billion people. There are now over 8 billion on this planet. And in 14 years’ time there will be 9...
Sustainable living and sustainable growth have therefore become absolute necessities. Strained international relations urge us to prevent the wasting of natural resources and energy.
As multinationals, your responsibility and commitment to this cause is extremely important.
Equally important is that you are now tackling it on a wider scale. Not only the emergency situation of our climate. Not only the pollution of our own habitat and the loss of biodiversity. But also the inhuman working conditions and growing inequality.
I believe you all feel the urgency. You refer to yourselves as the leading voice of business for sustainability and as the business leaders who are rallying behind a bold and urgent transformation agenda.
These are words that lead to expectations. Huge expectations. You are telling the world that your companies do not treat sustainability as a toy of the Chief Sustainability Officer and the Marketing department. You are telling the world that sustainability lies at the very core of your business. It’s in the hearts and minds of the CEO, CFO, COO and CTO.
Personal leadership is crucial. I want to ask you to take the lead and make sure it’s seen. Make sure you take your entire supply chain and your business partners with you. Step out beyond the walls of the boardroom and head into society itself.
The beauty of this era, is that the world is welcoming companies that prove that things can be done differently. Each company represents a fundamental choice.
Choose ‘business’, followed by ‘as usual’.
Or, opt for ‘enterprise’, spurring courage, initiative, innovation, and the creation of a sustainable future.
What the world needs now, is men and women of enterprise.
I could name quite a number of areas in which ‘an enterprising attitude’ could lead to a breakthrough.
One of those I’ve been following with much interest for a few years now, is green hydrogen. Green hydrogen is possibly our most important trump card to store and distribute our solar and wind energy. Wind, especially from the North Sea, is probably obvious, but solar, solar in the Netherlands? Globally, the Netherlands is second only to Australia in solar panels per head of population.
Using green hydrogen seems to be our best option so far. Technology isn’t the greatest problem, neither is funding. What we really need is for business and government to take that leap of faith into the future together.
Game changers like this one are sprouting everywhere, in all sectors of the economy.
I’m sure right now you’re all thinking about the leap forward that your own sector is waiting for.
I encourage you to take it. Have faith in the adventure. The world is expecting great things from you and sincerely hopes you’ll turn your words into deeds, not only for the current generation but for all those to come.
You will always be welcome in the Netherlands, for sharing your knowledge, finding new partners and taking initiatives.
May I wish you every success as captain of your own sustainable ‘Starship Enterprise’. All within the ‘planetary boundaries’, of course!