Farmers have been protesting against proposed measures to deal with nitrogen pollution. Photo: / Hans Splinter CC BY-ND

The Dutch nitrogen crisis

A court ruling has forced the Netherlands to promptly deal with its high nitrogen emissions. The government has decided to cut speed limits and farmers have rallied in the streets to protest against reducing livestock numbers.

The ball was set rolling back in 2017, when a small environmental NGO – Mobilisation for the Environment – went to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to challenge the system that the Netherlands had introduced to protect Natura 2000 areas from nitrogen pollution. The system was set up as one of the obligations under the European Habitats Directive. Unlike other EU member states, the Netherlands allowed business to compensate for increases in nitrogen emissions with technical measures (such as air scrubbers) and nature restoration measures (such as extra mowing) that might deliver emission reductions in the future.

In November 2018, the ECJ decided in a court ruling that the Dutch legislation is too lax. The country’s highest administrative court confirmed the ECJ ruling by scrapping the current permit system in May this year. This immediately affected more than 18,000 projects, building sites and farming operations, that either had to halt or could not get started.

Though this ruling came as a surprise to many, the problem of nitrogen emissions is not new to the Netherlands. According to government data, 70 per cent of the country’s surface area exceeds critical limits for nitrogen.

A nitrogen committee was set up to examine possible measures to cut emissions. They suggested prompt reductions in speed limits on motorways and provincial roads to reduce NOx emissions from traffic. But they also pinpointed livestock farming as the main target, since 46 per cent of the nitrogen pollution originated from domestic agriculture. Another 32 per cent comes from neighbouring countries, where farming is likely the greatest source too. Traffic and housing only account for 6 per cent each.

Despite the small size of the country, it has the world’s second highest exports of agricultural products and has one of Europe’s highest concentrations of livestock.

One of the government coalition parties, the social-liberal D66, supported the committee by proposing that livestock population should be halved. This could be done by buying up and closing down livestock holdings belonging to farmers near or above retirement age.

Farmers’ organisations were quick to react. On 1 October, tractors flooded the streets of The Hague, causing rush-hour traffic chaos. This was followed by protests in other Dutch cities.

The other three coalition parties, ranging from liberal to conservative, were more sceptical or even in direct opposition to adjusting livestock numbers.

In mid-November, Prime Minister Mark Rutte presented a list of short-term measures. Most notable is an immediate cut in the maximum speed limit to 100 kph during daylight hours, from the previous 130 kph. Other measures included additives to livestock feed that will reduce ammonia emissions from manure. The government also granted an extra 60 million euro to a programme that compensates pig farmers who shut down their businesses.

Greenpeace said the measures did not do enough to tackle the root causes of the nitrogen crisis. “That would mean promoting ecological agriculture with fewer animals. The cabinet could begin the process immediately if it imposed compulsory pasturing and limited the import of soy for cattle feed,” a spokesman said.

Most of the “saved” nitrogen emissions from this package will be used to offset the increased emissions from building 75,000 houses in 2020. Only 30 per cent will lead to real emission reductions. It is also worrying that the Dutch government wants to discuss the possibility of repealing some of the Natura 2000 sites and the extension of other Natura 2000 sites with the EU Commission.

Prime Minister Rutte has announced that the government will present a long-term plan for handling nitrogen emissions in December.

Kajsa Pira

Politico 16 October 2019
The Economist 26 October 2019
Dutch News 13 November 2019


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