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Nitrogen crisis: Rapid, effective intervention in three specific regions could create breathing space

The new Dutch government must act quickly to take rapid, far-reaching measures in three specific regions to tackle nitrogen emissions. This will create the space for a long-term strategy to deal with other urgent problems and the knot of obligations that the state will need to untangle. These are the arguments set out by Leiden lecturer Jan Willem Erisman and landscape architect Berno Strootman in a report presented today to outgoing Minister of Agriculture Carola Schouten.

The Dutch state has adopted a range of legally binding obligations in areas such as climate, water quality and nature conservation at a time when there are also acute needs in relation to housing, agriculture and recreation. ‘In recent years, we have been struggling from one crisis to the next,’ says Jan Willem Erisman, Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Leiden University. ‘So we identified all our current obligations. There are a lot of them, and the ministries have no clear overview. That means that problems have piled up, as there is also no integrated strategy for how to deal with them.’

Straightening out 

Thanks to this complex puzzle of treaties and interests, the state is increasingly unable to meet its obligations, resulting in successful legal challenges such as the 2019 Urgenda case. The most pressing problem is that of nitrogen emissions, but rules about nitrogen levels have brought many other much-needed projects to a standstill. ‘The nitrogen issue needs to be straightened out before we can take an integrated approach to untangling the knot of other problems,’ says former Government Advisor on the Physical Environment Berno Strootman. 
New mathematical models can identify much more precisely where the deposition is coming from, and two specific regions have been highlighted where rapid action is needed to reduce nitrogen emissions: the ‘Green Heart’ of the Netherlands, with its dairy farms and the challenge of combating subsidence, and the Gelderse Vallei, which has an enclave in the Veluwe region. The latter area is home to many veal farms that are already registered with the buyout scheme. ‘It’s going to take a lot of work. Think of it like a crowbar: a big reduction in nitrogen emissions in the areas where you’ll have to do work in the future will create the necessary space to untangle the rest of the knot.’ 

Integrated strategy

A reduction in nitrogen emissions would open up opportunities for an integrated, long-term strategy for agricultural reform in six key areas to help the Netherlands achieve its international targets for climate, water, nature and biodiversity. ‘We’ll need an integrated strategy for that,’ Erisman predicts, ‘with a dedicated minister and clear policy goals for each region. And money – lots of money. The costs won’t be less than €2 billion a year over 10 years. But we’ll be able to untangle the knot and look forward to living in a more sustainable country that’s less under pressure.’ 

The full report, Naar een ontspannen Nederland (‘Taking the pressure off the Netherlands’) is available here (in Dutch).

Main photo: Arnaud Liégeois / Pixabay.com

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