Here’s what you need to know to understand the nitrogen crisis

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Fewer building permits, driving 100 kilometres per hour and many, many farmers’ protests. On Wednesday, Johan Remkes will present his findings after talking to farmers and everyone else involved in the nitrogen crisis. The nitrogen crisis has been an important but complicated issue for years. Therefore, in this article, we summarise what the nitrogen crisis is about.

  1. What is nitrogen                                                                                                     You can’t see or smell it, but nitrogen is everywhere? Seventy-eight per cent of all air consists of nitrogen. It is an important nutrient for plants. And basically not harmful to humans and the environment. When we talk about nitrogen as a problem, we talk about nitrogen which is reacting with other substances.

In other words: Nitrogen oxide. This is created even when you start the engine of a car. Or turning on the gas cooker. And on a larger scale: when factories run at full speed and planes take to the air. 

Ammonia-Cows and pigs are the protagonists here or rather their faeces. From this, ammonia is released. This ammonia floats through the air for a while.

  1. Bad for biodiversity

What rises, comes back down. It is no different from nitrogen. Among other things, it is absorbed by plants and some are better at it than others. Species like stinging nettle and blackberry, for instance, thrive on it. The more nitrogen they get, the more they overgrow rarer plants, such as orchids, and thus displace them. As a result, certain plants become scarce. And with them, animals that eat these plants. This is bad for biodiversity. But raindrops also drag down nitrogen. It can acidify the soil. This has the same negative effect on nature.

  1. Nature reserves must be protected

We walk into nature and end up in so-called Natura 2000 areas. There are 20 of them in Brabant, such as the Biesbosch, the Loonse, Drunense Dunes, and the Groote Peel.

Natura 2000 areas are places that the Netherlands itself once submitted to the European Union. They have a protected status because so many different animals and plants are there. It was agreed with Europe that the Netherlands should take good care of them.

Nitrogen can be a threat to the special plants and animals in these areas. According to our province, 17 out of 20 Natura 2000 sites are ‘nitrogen sensitive’.

  1. European champion of nitrogen emissions

As we said before: nitrogen itself is good for nature. But too much harmful nitrogen is not good. And the Netherlands is the European champion of nitrogen emissions. Per hectare, the Netherlands emits four times the European average nitrogen. This is because of the many livestock farms, industries, and people on this tiny piece of earth.

At the same time, it is not the case that everything emitted in our country also lands on Dutch soil. For instance, 32 per cent of all nitrogen that comes down to us comes from abroad via air and rainfall. That seems like a lot. But at the same time, triple the amount of ‘Dutch nitrogen’ ends up in countries like Belgium and Germany.

  1. Agriculture is the biggest emitter

So which sectors are responsible for this? This is where agriculture comes in. Or rather: intensive livestock farming. Dutch farmers keep 116.5 million animals. In Brabant, this is mainly in the eastern part of the province.

This is nothing new under the sun. Agriculture has emitted the most nitrogen for decades, followed by traffic and industry. Of the 100 largest nitrogen emitters in the Netherlands, 40 come from Brabant. Among them are many livestock farmers, who farm near Natura 2000 areas. Also, of all the nitrogen that lands on Dutch soil, most come from the agricultural sector, at 45 per cent.

Yet people have not been sitting still. Since 1990, nitrogen emissions have fallen by 60 per cent. Thus, farmers were already taking many sustainable measures. In the last 15 years, however, nitrogen emissions in this sector have remained more or less the same. And that has to change, judges the new government. In our country, total nitrogen emissions must be halved by 2030. More on that later.

  1. Nitrogen policy leads to nitrogen crisis

But first: how did it come to this? For that, we go back to the financial crisis in 2008.

The Balkenende IV government wanted to pull the Netherlands out of the financial crisis by accelerating construction projects. But even then, the government was obliged to take care of Natura 2000 areas.

The government devised a construction for this: building permits could be issued. With the promise that damage to nature would be restored later.

But our country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, put a stop to that in 2019. Issuing building permits near sensitive nature reserves was banned with immediate effect. According to the judge, it was unclear whether the restoration measures were really helping. The judge said: take better care of the Natura 2000 areas. Then you can build again.

18,000 building plans ended up on hold. Including the construction of residential areas, and adjustments to Brabant highways and train tracks. To quickly reduce nitrogen pressure, the speed limit was lowered to 100 kilometres per hour.

  1. Many livestock farmers are screwed

Back to now. After years full of nitrogen debates, the new cabinet has cut the knot hard. Nitrogen emissions must be halved by 2030. All sectors must contribute to this. That way, vulnerable nature areas can recover. And the Netherlands can build, literally, as a solution to the housing crisis.

In June, the government published a map of areas where this is especially needed. For instance, nitrogen emissions around the Groote Peel, where there are many pig farmers, must be reduced by 70 per cent. How nitrogen minister Christianne van der Wal did not say. That will be up to the provinces later.

While the plans for sectors such as industry, construction and transport are not yet known – those will follow this autumn – Van der Wal did point in the direction of livestock farmers. They are going to feel a lot of this. The number of farm animals is likely to shrink sharply. There is talk of switching to less intensive farming: i.e. fewer animals per square metre. More organic. But also about innovations and buying out farmers. Cattle farmers feel their survival is threatened by this, leading to large protests.

Many farmers feel it is unfair that the sector is seen as the big nitrogen bogeyman. According to them, politicians in The Hague have been pushing for large-scale, intensive livestock farming for years and have complied with the rules made by the government. Now that the government is cracking down, many farmers say the government is unreliable.

  1. What next?

Minister Van der Wal stands firmly behind her plans despite all the protests: “The balance between nature and economy must return,” she says.

The 12 provincial governments must look at how best to reduce nitrogen emissions. Also in Brabant. How, will become clear in 2023 at the earliest? That this will cost a lot of money is certain. The government is freeing up 25 billion euros for innovations, the switch to less intensive farming, and buying out farmers.

At the same time, more and more politicians believe that it is not only the state that should pay for this. Banks and companies, such as feed companies, should also help. They make a lot of money from intensive livestock farming. Those who wanted to increase the number of animals in recent years got easier loans from banks.

Now, with the push to reduce the number of animals, farmers are financially strapped. Many find themselves with hefty loans for bigger stalls and machinery. But are unlikely to be able to pay these off if they have to keep fewer animals. However, the largest financier of Dutch farmers, Rabobank, has no intention of cancelling loans.

Clearly, we are far from getting rid of the nitrogen crisis.

Originally written by: Joris van Duin on Omroep Brabant

Translated by: Simge Taşdemir


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