Why nitrogen is a very bad word for the Dutch

Why nitrogen is a very bad word for the Dutch

Dutch farmers cannot expect any reprieve in the pressure on them to look after the environment, with a government survey revealing the environment has moved into second place on a list of the biggest concerns of the Dutch people.

The state of Dutch society in general remains top of the list of concerns.

But the public have become more concerned about the environment, mainly due to the ongoing crisis around nitrogen compound pollution.

The country’s nitrogen emissions are four times the EU average per capita, posing a threat to the environment.

Courts have ruled that Dutch builders and farmers dealt with nitrogen emissions in a way that breached EU law. As a result, the country’s six-year construction boom is set to end, with 40,000 jobs at risk from the “nitrogen crisis”.

Farmers are under pressure too. Still coping with their enforced 11% reduction of dairy cow numbers in 2017 and 2018, forced by the EU, due to runaway phosphate pollution, Dutch farmers are in the front line of the EU bid to make farming more environmentally-friendly.

Wim de Vries, Environmental Systems Analysis professor at Wageningen University & Research, and a nitrogen specialist, has summed up the Dutch nitrogen problem in five questions and answers.

Why is nitrogen a problem?

Nitrogen (N) is an element that is all around us, an odourless gas: 80% of the air consists of it. It is one of the most important nutrients for plant growth too, and is therefore applied on Dutch farms as a fertiliser. In combination with hydrogen, N is converted into the gas, ammonia, which gets into the atmosphere.

And in combination with oxygen, N gets converted into nitrogen oxide. Traffic and industry are the main culprits here.

These reactive N compounds are the problem. They land on the ground (deposition). In nature areas, they raise the nutrient richness of the soil, and contribute to soil acidification. This causes a loss of biodiversity.

Nitrogen oxides lead to formation of fine particles and smog, making them harmful to human health as well.

Why is there such a fuss about N at the moment?

Nitrogen has been problematic since 1980, when the Netherlands suffered from ‘acid rain’. Apart from sulphur dioxide, ‘acid rain’ was also made up of nitrogen oxides and ammonia. Since then, the Dutch government has cut N emissions.

Emissions of nitrogen oxides and ammonia have been halved since 1990. And yet, too much N is still being deposited on about three-quarters of Dutch land devoted to nature. Moreover, emissions of ammonia have hardly been going down at all since 2010.

The programme for tackling N, which the government introduced in 2015, is aimed at reducing N emissions.

But in May this year, the Council of State ruled that this programme is inadequate. After this ‘nitrogen statement’, many construction permits have been put on hold and planned new neighbourhoods and roads scrapped, and it has become harder to get new permits.

What is wrong with the programme for tacking N?

The programme aimed at simultaneously cutting back N deposition in nature, and offering more scope for new economic activities that involve N emissions.

If a permit applicant indicated that he would install emissions-restricting measures in future, such as low-emissions housing for livestock, or nature conservation measure, he got a permit to build new barns, roads or houses. But the Council of State ruled that generalised plans no longer sufficed: a constructor had to prove that N deposition in Natura 2000 areas would not increase.

In practice, that is extremely difficult to prove.

Who produces N?

Agriculture produces 40% of the N deposited in the Netherlands, whereas 35% comes on the wind from other countries. Industry and shipping produce 11% of the Dutch N, and Dutch households 6.5%. The Netherlands is actually a net exporter of N: four times as much N is blown over the border than comes into the country.

It is important to differentiate between N emission and deposition. N emission is all the production of N by Dutch farmers, industry and vehicles.

N deposition is all the N than lands on its farmland and nature areas. Emission and deposition are not the same thing, as some of ‘our’ N blows into neighbouring countries, while nitrogen from other countries ends up here.

In Dutch nature areas, for example, the Dutch share in the deposition is 60%, and the share from abroad 40%.

Halving the N emissions by Dutch agriculture means 20% less N deposition in the

Netherlands, since agriculture is responsible for 40%of that deposition.

Halving N emissions from cars, which account for 6.5% of N deposition, only cuts deposition by 3.25%.

By how much do N emissions need to go down?

N deposition needs to go down to what is known as the critical load. Barren grasslands contribute less N than a wood on sandy soil. The national average N deposition is 21kg per hectare. The critical load varies from 5 to 25kg.

For most types of nature landscape, the critical load is between 10 and 20kg. With an average deposition level of 14kg, most of the nature will stay healthy.

An average deposition reduction from 21 to 14kg per hectare per year seems like a modest ambition, but in terms of emissions reduction, it is highly ambitious, because the country’s own contribution to N deposition on Natura 2000 areas is only 60%, the other 40% comes from abroad.

The Dutch government can exercise very little influence over this ‘import’.

That means that the improvement has to come from Dutch emissions reduction.

To achieve this target, you have to reduce them by 50%. If you want to achieve that by, say, 2030, you are talking about an emissions reduction of 5% per year.

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