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

In the ongoing nitrogen crisis, it is sometimes difficult to understand what the problem is and how we ended up in this crisis. To keep it simple, we list five things you need to know to understand the nitrogen dossier.

1. The Netherlands is obliged to protect nature reserves

The government has no choice in the short term. According to European agreements, the Netherlands is obliged to protect nature in 162 Natura 2000 areas (which the Netherlands has nominated itself). Initially, the protection of these areas was regulated nationally, but in 2001 it was agreed at a European level that the protection of nature is a European matter.

As a result, the Netherlands cannot independently decide to ‘give up’ these areas and is legally obliged to protect nature in these areas. You can only register if European legislation is amended.

This does not apply to the rest of nature in the Netherlands: there too precipitation of ammonia and nitrogen oxides sometimes causes damage, but the cabinet does not have to do anything about that.

The areas were once selected with a view to biodiversity: the number of animal and plant species in Europe is decreasing. These areas all have specific species that have been agreed not to be lost in Europe.

2. Nitrogen is not harmful, too much ammonia and NOx is

Nitrogen itself is not harmful. For example, it is the element from which nitrogen gas is built, which makes up almost 80 percent of the air we breathe. High-temperature combustion, such as in factories or car engines, releases nitrogen oxides (NOx). They are harmful to people and nature. Another nitrogen compound that can damage nature is ammonia, which is released from manure.

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Excessive precipitation of both substances in nature leads to acidification, causing important nutrients to disappear from the soil. It also ensures that plant species that have a poor tolerance for nitrogen are displaced – just like the animal species that depend on these plant species. It leads, among other things, to a decrease in plants, insects and birds.

3. The System That Was Devised Failed

The nitrogen problem in the Netherlands is not new. The emissions here are much higher than in most other European countries, due to the large amount of livestock on a limited number of kilometers. For decades, efforts have therefore been made to limit the precipitation of nitrogen oxides and ammonia in the Netherlands, in order to protect nature. This has partly been successful: the precipitation has decreased. Yet it is still one third too high, according to research by the RIVM, which means that the quality of nature in the Netherlands is still deteriorating.

In 2015, a solution was therefore devised: the Nitrogen Approach Program (PAS). Money was made available to carry out restoration work in nitrogen-sensitive nature areas. At the same time, this policy had to give room to entrepreneurs. Anyone who wanted to build a road or keep more cows received permission, but the compensation for nature came later.

It soon became clear that this system was failing: it looked good on paper, but measurements and satellite images showed that this did not reduce nitrogen emissions. One of the reasons was that the measures taken by expanding livestock farmers (such as nitrogen extractors in stables) worked less well in practice than on paper.

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4. The biggest gains can be made from livestock farms

In 2019, the Council of State therefore ruled that the system could no longer be used, because nature is still deteriorating. Since then, it must first be proven that Natura 2000 areas do not suffer from the expansion of a stable or the construction of a road, before construction is allowed.

Because the precipitation is still too high for nature to recover, and because of the ruling of the Council of State it is difficult to build in the Netherlands, there is only one solution: significantly reduce the total emissions in the Netherlands.

This is sour for livestock farmers: they have generally complied with legislation and regulations, have invested heavily in sustainability – but are now being told that the sector must shrink.

Nevertheless, they are an important part of the solution: about 40 percent of the precipitation on Natura 2000 areas with too much nitrogen comes from agriculture, according to figures from the RIVM. About 40 percent comes from abroad, and the rest from industry and traffic. Little can be done about the foreign part. And even if all traffic and industry in the Netherlands is shut down, too much nitrogen will still fall. The majority of the profit will therefore have to be achieved in a relatively small sector: livestock farming.

Earlier we made this explainer video about nitrogen: