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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 08:22 GMT
The Dutch kids who bet on Kyoto
As part of a series on young environmentalists in the BBC's Generation Next season, Patrick Jackson in Almere, near Amsterdam, meets school kids making good on Kyoto by betting their government they can save more energy.

Being 14 is no obstacle to helping the planet, judging by the example of a group of Dutch school kids fired up by an idea as bright as an energy-saving light bulb.

The schoolchildren from Almere taking part in The Bet

Thanks indirectly to their efforts, vehicles at the Netherlands' environment ministry will be running on natural gas by the spring of 2007.

The teenagers in Almere, a futuristic new town near Amsterdam, had called on the environment minister to outdo them personally in ways to save energy.

Over four weeks, and under the arbitration of environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, the two sides vied to come up with ideas for meeting the European Union's minimum Kyoto goal of 8% savings.

Children from Helen Parkhurst School, which already has its own wind turbines, pursued The Bet at home, in class and in local businesses.

Illai Kenney has challenged Coca-Cola
It meant a coffee cut for some and computer deprivation for others, but a government prize of 2,000 ecologically clean euros ($2,560) beckoned if they won.

If they lost, the kids - average age 14 - would have to pull State Secretary Pieter van Geel around The Hague for a day in a rickshaw.

And Mr van Geel mounted an inventive campaign of his own featuring, among other things, Al Gore and some "standby killers".

Daylight saving

One of the school's five blocks managed to get by with having the lights switched off for 20 hours a week this autumn.

Maikel Breedveld, 15
I am always using my bike - I go everywhere on it
Maikel Breedveld, 15

"It wasn't really dark, just a little bit dimmer," says Ivar Geel, 15.

Another, more lasting innovation, was to turn off school computers at 4pm each day rather than leaving them on stand-by overnight.

But the idea of not turning on the coffee machines for a day was not a universal hit.

"The teachers got quite cranky," recalls Saraya Ganzeules, 16.

Saraya and her friends persuaded 10 local businesses to save energy. A bakery, for example, began turning off its lights, ovens and heating earlier.

The kids brought The Bet home with them too, asking their families to turn down the heating, take shorter showers and keep the tap switched off when brushing their teeth.

The mother of Lindsay Reiche, 14, decided that the family's computer would be kept switched off two days a week.

Maikel Breedveld, 15, says with a grin that his personal contribution to conserving heat at home was to keep doors closed, trapping warm air inside.

The kids also talked about the greenhouse effect to other schoolchildren, making a simplified presentation for primary school pupils.

The minister's message

Mr van Geel's lifestyle before the Almere Bet was already fairly green, and it was a challenge to come up with fresh ideas.

State Secretary Pieter van Geel, the Dutch environment minister (image from ministry)
It is very brave for schoolchildren to try to convince all those school directors to spend more money on greener electricity
Pieter van Geel
Dutch environment minister

Along with ordering natural gas cars, he

  • organised a showing of Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth for ministry staff and children
  • invited school magazine editors to a news conference about the same film
  • arranged an energy audit of his ministry
  • made an appeal on the ministry intranet asking staff to help save energy

In his own home, he installed standby "killers" which stop the waste of electricity involved in leaving devices on standby.

In all, the minister achieved an impressive 20% energy savings - but it was the Almere kids who won The Bet, with a staggering 33% cut.

Visiting the school to present the cheque, Mr Van Geel was particularly struck by efforts the kids had made to convert other schools in Almere to switch to green energy.

"It is very brave for schoolchildren to participate in school board meetings and try to convince all those school directors to spend more money on greener electricity," he says.

A greener generation?

The Almere Bet, the latest in a series of such initiatives going back to 2001 in the Netherlands, was also about showing "the politicians how easy it is to save energy", says Grietje Holleman of Friends of the Earth Holland (FOENL).

The "Vacuum-Cleaner" - the depot for Almere's suction waste disposal system

With The Bet over, do the Almere kids foresee a greener lifestyle for their generation?

They have a certain impetus to do so. Almere is a leafy town built from scratch on reclaimed land just 30 years ago. It is criss-crossed by dedicated bus routes and car-free cycle routes, and has a hi-tech concealed waste disposal system.

Ivar says he wants to avoid using cars when he grows up:

"When my Mum and Dad go to a friend's house, they use the car but when I am older I plan to go everywhere on my bike - it will save the air from the petrol fumes."

Lukasz Dabrowski, 14, wants to see more use of solar panels and wind turbines to generate electricity.

For Valerie Buijs, 15, energy conservation remains the main thing:

"Everybody must help all over the world to save energy by showering less, and turning off the heater and the lights."

As for the 2,000-euro prize, it will help buy a display panel to monitor power generated by the Dutch school's roof-top "windmills" - the turbines which already meet nearly a third of its energy needs.

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