A small country tries to bring down its high nitrogen levels

Edition 31 October 2019, by Johannes Visser

‘Very serious national measures are needed to counter the high levels of nitrogen emissions within the Netherlands. Halving emissions will not be enough to protect the environment. The Dutch government needs to buy out stockbreeders around the whole country, not just close to vulnerable areas like nature parks’.

This is the conclusion of research carried out by Wageningen Environmental Research, commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), published on 14 October. It is the latest twist in a nitrogen-fueled saga that has been raging for months. The Council of State (RvS), the highest administrative court of the Netherlands, ruled in May that the government’s Nitrogen Approach Programme (PAS) had to be put on hold at once, as it did not comply with EU rules. Under PAS, all kinds of nitrogen-enhancing activities were taking place based on the assumption that they would be compensated for through undefined nitrogen-reducing measures. And yet nobody was checking what these countermeasures would be and nowhere was a structural record kept of the state of the more than 160 nitrogen-sensitive nature (Natura 2000) areas.

After the RvS verdict the government frantically looked for ways to reduce nitrogen emissions and the twelve provinces temporarily halted 1.500 large and small construction projects. The Wageningen study for the first time mapped out how the Natura 2000 sites are suffering due to excess nitrogen. More than 70% of the areas are facing a surplus of nitrogen, on average a third more than they can handle. To solve this problem, Dutch nitrogen emissions would have to be halved in order to compensate for all of the nitrogen elements blowing in from across the border.

Angry farmers

About 70 percent of all nitrogen emission is caused by the agrarian sector, in particular livestock breeding. Due to high concentrations of nitrogen in for example ammonium hydroxide produced through manure, certain plants like blackberries, grasses and stinging nettles accumulate and squeeze out vulnerable plant species. Because of the ensuing environmental damage, some political parties like the coalition partner D66 have suggested that the Dutch livestock population be halved in order to protect nature.

The result was a political firestorm and a large number of very angry livestock farmers going on strike. On 1 October, thousands of farmers from around the country drove their tractors to The Hague to protest at the Malieveld, causing the largest traffic jam in the history of the country. The Hague mayor Pauline Krikke, who stepped down one week after the protests, had forbidden demonstrations inside the Dutch capital, but angry farmers showed up anyway. One of them crashed his tractor through the safety fences, followed by his peers, to the great delight of much of the Dutch public.

In Friesland, the provincial government cancelled several nitrogen reduction measures, after farmers spontaneously drove their tractors to Leeuwarden and blocked access roads around the provincial government building. More protests around the country have been announced, with the farmer firebrands feeling the support of two thirds of the Dutch population. Local, regional and national politicians in turn are feeling the heat and the Rutte government has already promised hundreds of millions of euros to tackle the nitrogen emission problem.

Half measures or full throttle?

Major disagreement has arisen in the governing coalition of VVD, CDA, D66 and Christian Union over the fight against the nitrogen. All parties agree that emission levels must come down, but disagree on how to do it. D66 and the Christian Union want to buy out livestock farmers as soon as possible. Farming-friendly CDA too acknowledges that significant measures must be taken to bring down emission levels. Only the liberal VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte wants to maintain current livestock levels, stating that technological solutions alone should be able to fix the problem.

But the Wageningen study concludes clearly: they do not. Technical fixes like air scrubbers or a different composition of feed can reduce nitrogen emissions in agriculture by up to almost a third, but they are too expensive, too difficult to implement and quite possibly ineffective. Government plans to buy outdated stables near Natura 2000 areas also have too little of an impact on emissions levels, as almost half of all nitrogen deposition in the provinces is blown in from across the border. Researchers say stronger measures are needed.

Although Dutch politics for now has not yet agreed on how to tackle the issue, there seems to be near consensus on the need to bring down emissions from regular road traffic, responsible for 9 percent of total nitrogen output. No longer is there a taboo on lowering maximum speed levels on some Dutch highways. Only the liberal VVD is having cold feet, since raising the maximum speed limit to 130 kilometers per hour was its showpiece legislative accomplishment.

Back to business as usual?

All provinces had stopped giving out permits since the RvS verdict in May, but then the national government announced new building conditions at the beginning of October. On 11 October, all Dutch provinces once again started to issue permits for building projects close to protected nature areas. But builders will now have to prove that their activities do not increase nitrogen output except during construction.

No new nitrogen may be added to the environment when a new structure is to built. This means that a building company must remove at least the same amount of the chemical composition as it is expected to add to the area. Where possible, levels of nitrogen should decrease. Existing projects can be made more sustainable, meaning there is more room for expansion. Companies can also purchase ‘nitrogen space’ from others that are planning to cease production. After months of negotiations, the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality Carola Schouten announced that the government will spend a total half billion euros on decreasing nitrogen levels, but no existing cattle farms are likely to be bought out any time soon.

Still, nature protection groups are unhappy and say that Minister Schouten’s plans to reduce nitrogen damage are insufficient. The leader of the Green Party, Jesse Klaver, also called the plans ‘too vague’. Environmental activist Johan Vollenbroek, who was one of the people who brought the nitrogen issue to the RvS, says the measures are half-hearted and wants to take the government back to court. According to Vollenbroek, it is clear that the farmers’ organization LTO and the Dutch automobile association ANWB took part in drawing up the new plans. Indeed, as Minister Schouten defended her plans on television, interests groups of builders, farmers and motorists expressed their satisfaction with the new plans.

Nature under pressure

Almost as a rule, nature conservation and economic activity are at odds with one another, in the Netherlands as well as around the world, as agriculture, housing, industry and infrastructure produce harmful substances that have a negative impact on nature reserves. The densely populated Netherlands has among the highest nitrogen emissions in the world. And nowhere else in Europe is the emission of ammonia higher than in the Netherlands, per hectare of agricultural land.

According to Johan Remkes, whose governmental Advisory Board published its report on the Dutch nitrogen problem at the end of September, many Natura 2000 sites in the country are in a bad state and biodiversity is in dire need of revival. Most political parties welcomed Remkes’ call for drastic measures to reduce emissions, but according to the former VVD Minister of Internal Affairs there can be no taboos in solving this problem. Cutting back on livestock, driving more slowly and producing more sustainable energy, the country has to do all of it. Remkes says halving the number of cows, pigs and chicken across the board is not an optimal solution, as this would also target farmers who have already invested in nitrogen-reducing measures. According to the advisory board’s findings, it is much more effective to relocate specific businesses away from protected nature areas.

As the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter on one of the smallest patches of land, the Netherlands ought to make a decision about priorities. How much nature do the Dutch people want and how much are they willing to pay for it? If economic growth at all costs is acceptable to most people, then they must also accept that the country has no wildlife to speak of. But if the Dutch do want to enjoy parts of the country where nature can flourish, the most polluting industries will have to move or be shut down. As the environment worldwide is deteriorating rapidly, it seems that the Netherlands has made up its mind and is willing to contribute to a greener world – if only haphazardly.