The bottom-up approach to sustainability: the comeback of the cooperative

Not all blessings are sent down from above. Citizens themselves are coming up with innovative, sustainable initiatives. How can governments respond?

Car-sharing, community-supported agriculture, co-housing, social bicycle workshops, food teams that buy collectively from farmers, communal allotments, local residents coming together and investing in a wind turbine... these are the kinds of transitional ideas that citizens themselves are starting to come up with. The guiding principle behind it all is the cooperative philosophy. Larger cities in particular are getting really experimental. A bottom-up approach then. Or is it?

'In practice, there's sometimes a bit of top-down involved, too. Many of the initiatives are actually co-launched by people working for the local government,' explains Thomas Block, sustainability and governance lecturer at the University of Ghent. 'They wear two hats. That can sometimes cause confusion. Sometimes during consultations, they no longer know whether they are there as a citizen or as an official. They may also clash with the city council or other city services. Take the example of the 'liveable streets' project, whereby residents create their own temporary car-free 'dream street' with the support of the city. What happens if a minority of residents don't want to be involved? What should governments do then, go ahead with it anyway? And what do you do if the fire service opposes the plan?'

Some citizens' initiatives quickly fizzle out; others catch on. Car-sharing systems like Cambio, for example, are popping up like mushrooms. What makes a movement successful? According to Thomas Block, there is a range of factors at play.

The role of citizens

A recurring theme in many sustainable citizens' initiatives is the cooperative philosophy: upon joining forces, people feel strong enough to approach things differently. For those behind the initiative, the social aspect is sometimes even more important than the sustainability factor. They are not always primarily concerned with saving the earth, but enjoy finding new ways of addressing problems. 

The role of public authorities

It is not always clear whether and how cities or municipalities should provide support for sustainable citizens' initiatives. A financial boost is always welcome, as is the sharing of expertise. However, it is rarely a good idea for cities and municipalities to completely take over an initiative and manage it themselves. They must be bold enough to loosen the reins a little and allow people to do their thing. It is also best to resist the urge to develop a one-size-fits-all solution. Every initiative arises from a specific context, and requires a specific approach. The response must be made-to-measure. 

The role of policy entrepreneurs

The term 'policy entrepreneurs' is jargon for politicians, officials or citizens who take on the role of inspired entrepreneurs. They see opportunities, make use of an extensive network, connect citizens and public authorities and work tirelessly in doing so. They also know what policy avenues need to be pursued in order to get results. 

The maturity of the project

The initiative must be 'mature' enough to respond to the cracks that have appeared in large systems. Again, take the example of the mobility system, which is historically tailored for use by private car owners. The cracks in the system are well-known: fine dust, congestion and noise, and at a higher level global warming and the depletion of commodities. Car-sharing takes advantage of those cracks, and provides an attractive alternative for an increasing number of citizens. The system is self-sustaining. The local authorities make their contribution by reserving parking spaces for car-sharing in key locations, and by using the system themselves.

Thomas Block does, however, have a couple of disclaimers when it comes to this cooperative voluntarism:

  • Even a successful initiative may not always be able to shake up the status quo. The powers that be include not only industry and big business, but also citizens themselves. Eating local, organic and seasonal food appeals to a portion of the population. However, many consumers still believe that strawberries and beans should be available in supermarkets all year round.
  • The citizens involved in cooperative initiatives mostly belong to the white, progressive and critical middle class; i.e. they are a minority group.

Local and global power gains

In many policy areas, the authority of nation states is being eroded. The same applies to sustainability. Local authorities and global institutes are gaining power:

More power for mayors

Nation states are too large for direct democracy to function properly. In addition, according to the American political scientist Benjamin Barber, they represent an obstacle to international cooperation as they are loath to concede any authority over their territory. As a result, they prevent solutions being found for cross-border problems such as global warming.

In his book 'If Mayors Ruled the World', Barber explains how cities do have the necessary assets to address global issues. For example, Los Angeles has already reduced its CO2 emissions by 20%, whilst the US as a nation has made far less progress. Many other cities have also set themselves more ambitious CO2 reduction targets than other authorities.

Many cities are now trying to join forces with other cities to find solutions to problems, via a range of networks and organisations such as Eurocities. Barber believes this could be taken even further. He calls for the establishment of a global parliament of mayors with 300 seats rotating between the participating cities, which would meet three times a year to adopt (non-binding) proposals.

'Cities should be given more room for manoeuvre, both financially and legally,' explains Barber in an interview with the Dutch online journalism platform De Correspondent. 'Cities usually have more in common than countries do. If Germany grows, Poland becomes smaller. But if Berlin grows, that won't affect Krakow at all. I think it's much more likely that New York and Moscow will work together than Obama and Putin.'

More power for Europe and global institutes

A robust body with global powers of enforcement? The UN is not far off, but the disadvantage is that decisions lie in the hands of a small group of players. Closer to home, the European Union is wrestling with a democratic deficit that is even greater than that of nation states. However, it is precisely because of the distance between European institutions and European citizens that the EU can sometimes force through unpopular, but sustainable measures. Take the problem of fertilisers. The strategy is a familiar one: national politicians 'ask' Europe to impose stricter environmental and other standards, and then turn to their citizens and say, 'it was Europe's decision'.



Public and social profit institutions can promote sustainability through procurement

Public procurement in Europe accounts for around 19% of GNP. This purchasing power is an often underutilised icebreaker for rendering the economy more sustainable.

Public organisations, when combined, have enormous purchasing power. They can use this to steer the entire economy onto a more sustainable course. According to Mieke Pieters, this does not happen often enough. For many years, she worked as a strategic procurement expert for the City of Ghent, and organised the Ecoprocura conference last year. These days, through The global picture, she provides training and advice on sustainable procurement policies, facility management and chain management.

Mieke Pieters: 'The government and the social profit sector are giants with feet of clay: they have enormous potential, but it is hardly ever utilised. Yet you can achieve sustainable objectives via procurement policy without having to spend extra money.'

The inclusion of sustainability criteria in public contracts is just the first step on the path to a more mature procurement policy. The next step is the development of a procurement strategy. This is a relatively easy task, provided that the organisation has a clear strategy. Mieke Pieters:

'For example, that could be: by 2020 we want to reduce our CO2 emissions by 20%. But it could also be: we want to boost the social economy. It is then down to the procurement department to translate the organisation's strategy into procurement targets.'

Real needs, well-considered specifications

A sustainable procurement policy does not begin with the question 'What do we want to buy?', but with the question 'What do we really need?'. Simply replacing 50 petrol cars in a fleet with 50 hybrid cars without a second thought is not the right approach, explains Mieke Pieters:

'First ask yourself whether the organisation actually needs 50 cars. If they are used efficiently, you might only need 25. Then, those cars can be really state-of-the-art when it comes to sustainability, and can cost a bit more. Or you can switch part of the fleet to car-sharing vehicles. Or encourage the use of electric bicycles: 80% of the impact of sustainability measures is down to thinking about what you really need. You can perform this same exercise with computers, office equipment and so on.'

With the help of well-considered specifications, public bodies and social profit institutions can also set their suppliers on the path to sustainability. These organisations have hundreds of delivery vans driving around every day with paper, meals, laundry, etc. Give the supplier with the most sustainable vehicle fleet extra points, and you have already made a little progress.

Mieke Pieters: 'The same applies to other sustainability criteria. One particular hot topic is sustainable chain management. No city wants to hear that the cobblestones for its streets were made by children, just as hospitals like their work clothing to be produced under humane working conditions.

Or take the issue of social employment. As a public authority, you can achieve some of your equal opportunity policy targets via public contracting. For example, if a new school is being built, you can insert an employment clause in your specifications. This will place an obligation on the contractor to select an agreed number of unemployed young people, train them up and give them a contract if they show promise. The professions in question are often in need of new blood, so the employer benefits too.

You could also ask a contractor to turn to the social economy for certain labour-intensive, repetitive tasks. These employees could, for example, prepare the site before the contractor's painting team arrives and then tidy up afterwards.'

Sustainable standards

These new ideas surrounding sustainability are bringing about a revolution in the world of procurement. For example, a new ISO standard on sustainable procurement (ISO 20400) is set to arrive in 2016 or 2017. CPOs (chief procurement officers) in large organisations will, with the support of their procurement teams and in consultation with the management, quickly be able to catch up. But what about procurement officers in municipalities or other smaller organisations? Here, it is best to create a team to support procurement officers, says Pieters:

'The people in that team must determine the strategy and objectives, as the procurement officer cannot do that alone. A second option is to join a larger procurement group. More and more smaller municipalities are carrying out their procurement operations together with cities, which do have well-developed procurement teams. This joining of forces makes it possible to pursue a sustainable procurement policy at the best price.'

Five quick wins

  1. In your specifications, give priority to suppliers with a modern, environmentally-friendly fleet.
  2. Switch to recyclable packaging that the supplier takes away with them.
  3. Purchase products with sustainability labels (FSC or PSC, Ecolabel, Max Havelaar, Fair Trade, etc.).
  4. Opt for environmentally-friendly paint and for painting companies that employ people from disadvantaged groups.
  5. Record everything you have done (energy savings, switching from several individual printers to one communal, multifunctional printer, etc.) and communicate that information, too. Without communication, there can be no sustainability, and you cannot build the necessary support for it either.


How sustainable is sustainable?

Sustainability is often in the eye of the beholder, and economic interests certainly have a role to play, too. We take a closer look at a few of the most popular sustainability measures:

Electric cars

A battery-powered car is less polluting than a car with a conventional combustion engine – but only if the electricity is not generated at a lignite-fuelled power plant. However, a real transition in the field of mobility requires not only a technological revolution, but also a change in behaviour.

The gains achieved through technological progress are often negated by increased consumption. This is known as the 'rebound effect'. Replacing all conventional vehicles with the same number of electric vehicles will also have an adverse impact on the environment, and does not solve the problem of congestion. Safe cycle paths, comfortable and affordable public transport and car-sharing systems, on the other hand, do. Another example of the rebound effect: using the electricity generated by solar panels to warm a swimming pool or to provide artificial lighting in the garden at night.

Short chains?

Urban agriculture, reducing food miles, local production... the 'short chain' is the latest big thing. It is, after all, a simple way of ensuring more sustainable production and consumption – but that does not make it a cure-all. For example, in short chains, the baby that is fair trade is thrown out with the bathwater.

The challenge here is to create a long chain that is socially equitable as well as environmentally sustainable. That's no easy task, but it does allow you to tick off more sustainable objectives. If farmers and traders in the south get a fair price for bananas, coffee and chocolate, and if the environmental impact of transporting those goods remains marginal, then a sustainable system has been created. 

On the other hand, transporting North Sea prawns to and from Morocco just to have them peeled there is not sustainable – even if the peelers are paid a fair wage. A tip for anyone who wants to give peeling prawns a try themselves: twist the head off, remove a few scales, give the tail a pinch and voilà!



The Pension Tower: 50 years old and highly economical

The South Tower in Brussels, better known as the Pension Tower, was built back in 1964. Yet today, it is one of the most energy-efficient office blocks in the country.

The South Tower (150 metres tall, 36 floors, 41,000 m² of usable surface area, 1,670 members of staff) is the tallest building in Belgium. Its outer shell – a glass facade – was renovated 20 years ago. Yet the Belgian State Pensions Service (RVP) still hoped to find room for more savings.

The facility management team, together with Veolia, which manages the technical installations, set up an Energy Team in 2008. That team conducted an energy audit, and subsequently managed to drastically reduce the building's energy bill and CO2 emissions. How did they do it?

Marc Leunens (RVP facilities manager): 'We insulated the emergency stairwell, which goes right up to the 36th floor, and we appealed to employees to turn off the lights and computers when leaving work. But the greatest difference came as a result of taking a different approach to heating and cooling. In the space of four years, it was possible to reduce electricity consumption by 29% and even reduce fuel oil consumption by 37%: consumption fell from 760,000 litres in 2009 to 443,000 litres in 2013. All in all, we were able to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 6,000 tonnes – that amounts to the average emissions quantity produced by 1,600 households.'

Office blocks are traditionally heated using fuel oil. During the transitional season in particular, the Pension Tower's three oil-fired boilers are largely redundant, says Marc Leunens:

'In spring and early autumn, it is often enough to just turn the heating on briefly in the morning and leave it off for the rest of the day. That's why we installed two additional heating sources. The first is a cogeneration installation. The engine is gas-driven, and produces both electricity and heat. We use the two of those in parallel as much as possible. The electricity goes to the servers in our data room, as they have to be running constantly. Then we use the heat for heating the building during the transitional season. An extra advantage is that we received green electricity certificates for the cogeneration installation.

A second new source of energy is our two heat pumps. They run on green electricity. One of them is a high-temperature water pump: the first of its kind in a European office block. Thanks to these new systems, we can wait a lot longer before starting up our oil-fired boilers.'

An ongoing quest

The Energy Team is continuing its quest for energy savings. But their task is becoming more difficult, admits Marc Leunens:

'We are looking into installing small-scale wind turbines on the roof. Our tower is one of the five most suitable locations in Brussels for such a project. We are also conducting a small study into LED lighting. The problem is that we already fitted our lights with energy-saving light bulbs 15 years ago. If we now replace all of those with LED lights, we will either end up producing too much light, or we will have to reduce the number of light fittings. But then we would also have to adjust the ceilings. That could get very expensive, especially in combination with the costly LED lights.

In any case, the quest continues. We would really like to hold on to the EMAS certificate that we received in 2008. EMAS stands for 'Eco-Management and Audit Scheme', which is a European management instrument for organisations that are constantly striving to improve their environmental performance.'

Energy performance contracts: a trick for tenants

Tenants are the ones who pay energy bills. So why would landlords or external installation managers want to invest in more efficient systems? It costs them money and they get nothing in return. A good trick for tenants? Energy performance contracts. Marc Leunens explains:

'You take a reference year for consumption, with adjustments for very cold and very warm days. We have a weather station on the roof for that purpose, but you can also get this information from the Belgian Royal Meteorological Institute. If we use less energy than the reference year in order to reach the agreed optimum temperature, our bill is cheaper. We share the profit from that with our service provider. If we use more, for example due to less adequate control of the system, the service provider pays us back the difference. This kind of bonus-malus system gives the provider a financial incentive to help ensure the building is run as economically as possible.'



Electric cars are gradually becoming the norm

As of 2026, a favourable tax regime will only apply to electric company cars. This is an important step towards more sustainable mobility – and an extra reason to go all out in greening your fleet.

The evolution towards a greening of company cars has now also been laid down by law. Thanks to a number of tax changes, electric company cars or e-cars will be the most interesting choice from now on. The perfect time to start electrifying your fleet already today.

The tax deductibility for newly ordered non-emission-free vehicles (diesel, petrol and hybrid cars) will gradually be phased out. Up to 2026, however, this will be 100% for emission-free vehicles (purely electric or hydrogen-powered cars). Afterwards, this deductibility will gradually decrease to 67.5% by 2031.

Electric driving isn’t just more tax-efficient

Electric cars are already 100% tax-deductible. And yet most fleets aren't really green yet. One reason is that the purchase price of an electric or hybrid car is considerably higher than that of a comparable car with a combustion engine. There’s been a noticeable evolution here due to the market mechanism, though, and prices are now less far apart.

But the purchase price isn’t the only factor to consider. In making this choice, it’s actually better to look at the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). This includes all expected costs: consumption, maintenance, CO2 contribution and tax deductibility. And these four elements are all more favourable for electric cars. If you use the TCO rather than purchase price as a yardstick, you’ll see that a green fleet of e-cars will be the most advantageous choice for your company in the future.

Progressive switch

Even though electric driving is the future and it’s clearly time for a new mobility, the tax scheme for cars powered by fossil fuel won’t change overnight.

  • Until 30 June 2023
    For company cars ordered before 1 July 2023, the current conditions regarding tax deductibility will continue to apply. For company cars that are leased or rented operationally and for which the beneficial ownership is not transferred, the closing date of the lease or rental contract is considered. The costs of a diesel, petrol or hybrid car remain 50 to 100% deductible, while the costs of electric cars remain 100% deductible.
  • Between 1 July 2023 and 31 December 2025
    For non-emission-free vehicles ordered as of 1 July 2023 until 31 December 2025, a transition period will apply, and the deductibility is gradually phased out. From a maximum of 75% in 2025, to 50% in 2026, to 25% in 2027, and ultimately 0% deductibility in 2028. As of 2025 the minimal deductibility of 50% is abolished. The CO2 contribution for these cars will also increase significantly each year. Emission-free cars will remain 100% deductible.
  • As of 1 January 2026 onwards
    Non-emission-free vehicles ordered as of 1 January 2026 will no longer be deductible. Only emission-free vehicles such as electric cars will then be 100% deductible. But this favourable scheme will also be gradually phased out over the next few years, to 95% for vehicles ordered in 2027, to 90% in 2028, to 82.5% in 2029, 75% in 2030 and eventually to 67.5% in 2031.
  • Plug-in hybrids (PHEV)
    For plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) ordered as of 1 January 2023, the tax deductibility of petrol and diesel costs will be limited to 50%. Electricity and other costs are not covered by this restriction. This measure is designed to encourage the use of electric motors and PHEV. Otherwise, PHEVs will continue to follow the non-emission-free vehicle rules.

And for your employees?

If you allocate a company car that your employee can also use privately, this benefit will be taxed as a fixed benefit in kind that depends on the list price and CO2 emissions and the fuel type. The status of the company car as an alternative remuneration will remain in place until after 2030. For the time being, therefore, nothing will change in the benefit in kind of the company car with respect to the employee. Although electric vehicles generally have a higher list price, zero emissions can make up for the difference and in many cases, turn out favourably for your employee.

What about charging?

To help your employees make the most of an electric car, you can have a charging station installed at their home if possible. Both the device and the installation at your employee's home are 100% tax deductible and there is no additional tax benefit for them.

As a company, you can, under certain conditions, benefit from an increased cost deduction for the installation of charging stations on your company premises. This amounts to 200% for investments made in the period from 1 September 2021 to 31 December 2022 and 150% for depreciations relating to investments made in the period from 1 January 2023 to 31 August 2024. A condition is that the charging station is depreciated linearly over at least five taxable periods and at the earliest as of the fiscal year that is linked to the taxable period during which the charging station is operational and publicly accessible.

Switch to an electric fleet

In addition to favourable tax conditions, there are many other excellent reasons to opt for electric cars today.

  • It is an environmentally friendly solution that leads to 17-30% less CO2 emissions than the emissions from ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles throughout the entire life cycle of the vehicle.
  • A wide range of new models is already on the market today and will only increase in the coming years.
  • Most new models already have a driving range of 300 to 600 km.
  • Advantageous Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).
  • Electric driving is pleasant and causes much less street noise.
  • The public charging infrastructure is expanding rapidly.
  • Access to low-emission zones and cities that ban diesel vehicles.

Nowadays, responsible fleet management is built around sustainability. Don't wait any longer to electrify your fleet and reduce your company’s ecological footprint. Our mobility partner Arval will help you to green your fleet and support you in your transition to electric vehicles.

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