Government to tackle nitrogen problem fast but with care

The government is taking measures to reduce nitrogen emissions, repair damage to the natural environment and resume licensing. Working with the provincial authorities, the government has opted for an area-based approach, which involves identifying the most effective measures in each area and then implementing them. It is also prepared to earmark extra funds. At the same time, authorities will have more scope to give projects the green light. The government is also investigating whether to introduce a threshold value for nitrogen emissions before the end of the year. And very soon businesses will again be able to offset nitrogen emissions.

This is what Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality Carola Schouten, the minister responsible for coordinating government action to tackle the nitrogen problem, wrote in a recent letter to the House of Representatives in response to the first report of the Advisory Committee on the Nitrogen Problem. The government will be taking measures relating to agriculture, transport, industry, the built environment and nature. These are needed to reduce air pollution and repair damage to the natural environment while also creating scope for economic development.

‘In the Netherlands we combine a lot of things,’ writes Ms Schouten in her letter. ‘We live, work, learn, travel and spend our leisure time in this small prosperous country. We want to keep it this way and pass it on to future generations. We are confronted with a nitrogen problem that puts our air quality and our natural environment at risk and threatens to slow progress and prevent new projects. This leads to uncertainty for farmers, entrepreneurs and members of the public. There are no quick fixes, but it is clear that nitrogen emissions need to be reduced. The government accepts the responsibility for taking the right measures.’

Licences

The government recognises that urgent steps are needed to enable authorities to further resume licensing procedures for projects and other activities. In locations where nitrogen deposition is not occurring, a licence under the Nature Conservation Act is not required. This can be measured using the AERIUS calculator. In addition, adjustments to a project or its location (internal or external offsetting of nitrogen deposition) or an exemption test (ADC-toets) may be used to support an application for a licence. To obtain an exemption, there must be no feasible alternative to the project and it must serve the public interest, while any harm to the natural environment must be compensated for.

An ecological test can also lead to permission for a project. If this results in no significant negative impact on Natura 2000 areas, the relevant authority may give the project the go-ahead. This also applies to new projects resulting in temporary nitrogen deposition, such as renewable energy projects. A 2020 threshold value for nitrogen deposition is currently being explored, so that licensing procedures for many, often smaller-scale activities can be resumed.

Area-based approach

The source of nitrogen deposition varies considerably from area to area. That is why a tailored approach is needed. In line with the advisory committee led by Johan Remkes, the government has opted for an area-based approach. Working with other authorities, the government will introduce smart measures targeting the areas where they are needed most and will have the greatest impact. For example, measures enabling farmers near Natura 2000 areas to leave farming, investment in innovations for farmers who want to continue and reducing speed limits where this has the greatest impact on nitrogen emissions.

Agriculture and nature

The government and the provincial authorities plan to help farmers who want to leave farming. The basic principle is that they do so on a voluntary basis. Farms responsible for high nitrogen emissions in the vicinity of Natura 2000 areas will be the first in line. Farmers who want to continue will receive support to invest in new low-emission stalls. This will also benefit animal welfare and will help in the shift to circular agriculture. Other measures that reduce nitrogen emissions include investment in systems that separate urine from manure and in alternative feed.

The government wants to make major investments to actively restore the natural environment, such as constructing buffer zones, creating more space for nature-inclusive agriculture and planting forests to benefit the climate. The government and the provincial authorities are also exploring options to speed up implementation of 1,200 planned restoration measures, including hydrological recovery measures.

Transport and the built environment

The government is working towards a further reduction in emissions from road transport, for example by urging Brussels to further tighten up European emission standards for new vehicles. At national level, the government wants to increase the number of cleaner vehicles on the roads by introducing fiscal incentives for the purchase and use of electric cars. This is in line with its goals for 2030, when all new cars need to be zero emission. At the same time, the parties to the National Climate Agreement specialising in mobility are now exploring ways of speeding up measures for sustainable transport.

Innovations in the construction sector also contribute to efforts in this regard. Electric machinery and vehicles, modular construction techniques and nitrogen filters are examples of developments that reduce nitrogen emissions at the construction stage. Innovations in this sector are also important for the competitiveness of the Dutch economy and are crucial to the achievement of the goals of the National Climate Agreement in the years to come.