Facts in an instant: what is nitrogen exactly and what is the problem? † NOW

The nitrogen levels in the cabinet again led to a lot of protests among Dutch farmers on Friday. For those who have lost the thread in this long file, NU.nl will list the facts. For what is really going on?

First a little chemistry: the atmosphere consists of about 80 percent nitrogen (N). This is normal and not harmful to humans, animals and plants. We even need nitrogen to live: four-fifths of every breath is made up of nitrogen.

However, if nitrogen binds to oxygen (O) or hydrogen (H), reactive nitrogen is formed and these substances are harmful to humans and nature. Such as nitric oxide (NOx) or ammonia (NH3). These nitrogen oxides are mainly emitted by industry and traffic. Agriculture is largely responsible for ammonia emissions.

Reactive nitrogen is bad for nature for several reasons. Some plant species grow faster on nitrogen, so they benefit from the man-made excess nitrogen. For example, orchids and grasses are overgrown by stinging nettles. Ultimately, this leads to loss of biodiversity. Not only in terms of plants, but also because the habitat of animals that benefit from the extinct plants is affected. Nature then ultimately consists of fewer plant and animal species.

The Netherlands has 162 so-called Natura 2000 sites, which must be protected according to European rules in order to preserve biodiversity. It does not work well because there is too much nitrogen in 90 of the protected natural areas.

The Netherlands has the highest nitrogen emissions in Europe: Per hectare, our country emits about four times as much as the European average. Other countries also have to comply with nitrogen guidelines to protect nature, but in the Netherlands it is a much bigger problem. We have many livestock (ie a lot of nitrogen emissions) on a small surface and often next to nature reserves. Therefore, the situation here is much more serious than, for example, in Germany. That land is much larger, and industrial and agricultural areas are not as close to nature reserves as here.

In short: something needs to be done about the harmful nitrogen, which the judge also decided a few years ago already. The nitrogen problem is not new at all. But for years, permits were issued to industry and agriculture with the idea: We compensate for the nitrogen emissions later. Only it never happened.

In 2019, the Council of State decided that this could no longer be the case. The emission of nitrogen actually increased. Shortly afterwards, the first steps were taken. The maximum speed on the highway during the day went from 130 to 100 kilometers per hour. Nor were more permits granted to build houses in Natura 2000 sites (which is necessary in view of the housing shortage). These were temporary solutions. Work is now being done on a larger, permanent level.

In some areas, emissions need to be reduced by up to 95 percent. “This is a bit like the day we all knew would come,” said Minister Christianne van der Wal (Nature and Nitrogen).

Agriculture is the first to be intervened in the new nitrogen supply, because almost half (46 percent) of all nitrogen in the Netherlands comes from agriculture. And those farms are often located near the Natura 2000 sites. In addition, almost a third come from abroad to cross the border. Road traffic accounts for more than 6 percent, as do households. The rest, almost 10 percent, comes from aviation and shipping, industry and construction.

Although farmers account for a very large share of nitrogen emissions, in future less nitrogen will be emitted in all sectors. By 1 October, industry, transport and other sectors will also be involved.

The provinces will determine exactly how nitrogen emissions from farms are reduced. They must have a plan by the summer of 2023. They may differ slightly per acre from the nitrogen targets per acre, but all in all, the national target must be reached. By 2030, three quarters of nature reserves must have a safe nitrogen level again.

And that means: at the national level, nitrogen emissions must be halved. In some areas, the pitch will need a complete overhaul to reach the goals. Many farmers will have to stop, reduce or start working in another, more sustainable way. There is money to buy out farmers, but many farmers do not want to just shut down or adapt their business – often their life’s work.

Although it is a major blow to farmers, it would not be catastrophic for Dutch food production if (many) farms disappear or shrink. 70 percent of what farmers in the Netherlands produce goes abroad. So even if there are fewer farmers, or if they produce less food, there will be more than enough left over to supply the Netherlands with food.

In response to the announced nitrogen plans, a large group of farmers protested on Friday night at the home of Minister Van der Wal. The Farmers Defense Force advocate group also announced a large-scale demonstration on Wednesday, June 22nd.

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