By Toby Sterling
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - With the Netherlands on track to miss its climate goals for 2020, the Dutch government is coming under pressure to order the closure of the nation's coal plants.
A group of 64 climate scientists on Monday called for the shuttering of all 11 plants, including three that came online this year and cost 5.5 billion euros ($5.85 billion).
Dutch coal use is at a record high in 2015 and it supplies up to a third of the country's electricity needs.
"It's high time the Netherlands finally sends a clear signal on sustainability," the scientists wrote in an open letter. "It will put an end to the paradox that one of the countries that has the most to lose from climate change is doing the least about it."
Two-thirds of the country's 17 million population lives below sea level and would be vulnerable to rising sea levels in a warming world.
The new coal plants were built during a period of economic stagnation as the government slashed subsidies for renewable energy and looked to cheap sources, including relatively efficient coal plants and plants powered by gas from the Groningen field, Europe's largest.
Parliament is due to debate with Prime Minister Mark Rutte strategy for the U.N. climate summit that starts in Paris on Monday and a majority is now backing the scientists' call.
Rutte's conservative VVD Party opposes the idea while its junior coalition partner Labour has endorsed it.
Just 5.6 percent of Dutch energy came from renewable sources in 2014, according to an annual energy review published in October, and the country will miss a "binding" 2020 target of 14 percent.
The Netherlands' target was set below the European Union-wide renewables target for 2020 of 20 percent, a concession granted due to the relatively large Dutch industrial base, centered around the port of Rotterdam. Neighboring Germany, with a similar profile, reached 30 percent from renewables in 2014.
In June, a court found the Dutch government had also fallen behind on its goals under the Kyoto protocol on CO2 emissions and ordered it to cut output by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 -- a more ambitious target than the 17 percent Rutte's government had been following.
Several studies have attributed the Dutch shortfall to erratic subsidy policies in 2006-2013 and a lack of spending on renewables.
Donald Pols of the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands said: "It was not only a decision about what it would cost the Netherlands, but a lack of belief in how quickly the (renewable energy) sector would develop."
The scientists calling for coal plants to be shuttered calculate that the generation capacity lost could be replaced with slack capacity at natural gas plants, some of which have been moth-balled in the face of competition from cheap coal. The difference in carbon dioxide emissions would be enough that the Netherlands could meet its 2020 emission targets, they wrote.
Britain last week said it would close its coal plants by 2025.
Andre Bosman, a member of parliament for the VVD party, said the government should shutter only the 5 oldest coal plants, having announced plans to increase renewables spending by 4.5 billion euros in 2016, for a total of 8 billion euros, in a bid to get back on track.
The three newest coal plants are owned by E.ON [EON.UL] and RWE Energy [RWE.UL] of Germany and France's EDF and have a combined capacity of 3.4 gigawatts. Shutting them would likely lead to damages claims.
E.ON spokesman Edwin Kotylak said: "CO2 emissions would fall in the Netherlands, true, but we would need to import electricity from Germany which is generated from brown coal. Overall, emissions would rise as a result.
"You're shifting the emissions elsewhere, but global warming is a global problem."
(Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Janet Lawrence)