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#9 The nitrogen-debate: a final thought

– Pieter van Loon
The nitrogen-debate; a final thought

Over a year now, the Netherlands has been dealing with a Nitrogen crisis. Among others, this affected the construction industry and put many projects on hold. Over the past year, we at the KOersief invited people with various backgrounds to share their opinion or expertise to widen the knowledge on the nitrogen crisis in our series ‘The nitrogen-debate’. Now, at the end of the academic year, we conclude our debate with this summary. 

For starters, the name of the nitrogen-debate is misleading according to Eline van den Heuvel (#8). As a chemist, she knows the importance of accurate naming when it comes to compounds. Nitrogen (N2) on itself is a completely harmless gas that makes up 78% of our atmosphere. The issue lies with nitrogen oxides (NOx) and reduced nitrogen (NH3), which are formed in the (construction) industry and agricultural industry respectively. Those nitrogen-containing compounds are greenhouse gasses, and worse, disrupt the nitrogen cycle.

The reason we ended up with this ‘nitrogen crisis’ has to do with this nitrogen cycle and European law, as Ton van Hoof (#2) explained in his piece. The emission of nitrogen compounds in the Netherlands per hectare is by far the highest of Europe. This disrupts the delicate nitrogen cycle in sensitive nature reserves endangering flora, and therefore fauna, in areas protected by European law. On behalf of ‘Werkgroep Behoud de Peel’, Ton van Hoof pleaded that the Dutch nature reserve law (PAS) did not guarantee sufficient nitrogen emission cutbacks to form the basis for granting permits for new construction projects. The Netherlands already had a surplus in nitrogen compound emissions. The law that was supposed to cut them down could not also be used to justify new nitrogen emitting projects. On May 29, 2019, the Council of State ruled in his favor, effectively blocking any and all permits that used to rely on the PAS to be granted. This resulted in the sudden nationwide decline of permits, debates on how to reduce nitrogen emissions and protests by farmers and the construction industry.

Partly due to the sudden changes caused by the ruling of the Council of State, many people felt like the verdict was unfair. Dennis Andreoli (#4) argued in his piece that if the nature reserves had taken a more open democratic approach, like a referendum, popular opinion would have never allowed the change to happen. The economic consequences and the uncertainty of many construction projects (like housing projects) outweigh the protection of some small nature reserves, he argued. However, as Ton van Hoof (#2) described, the appeals against the state to use the PAS to grant building permits had already started in early 2016. Still, the government was completely unprepared when in 2019 the Council of State ruled in favor of nature reserves, despite three years of legal action.

Many farmers also felt wronged by the sudden nitrogen crisis.  They felt they were accused of causing the ‘nitrogen crises’, despite many reforms over the past few decades making them cut back on various emissions. Pieter de Weerd  (#7) shared his concerns on the future of (dairy) farming. He drew parallels to 2015 when farmers were required to cut back their phosphate deposition, forcing them to buy expensive rights causing significant financial stress. Now many farmers seem to need to upgrade their stables - which costs up to 250,000 euros - to meet the new nitrogen demands. Meanwhile, these investments do not contribute to their profit or yield, and the competition, especially from abroad is aggressive. If the Netherlands were to stay a leader in agriculture and cattle, farmers need to be able to maintain their livestock and they need to be compensated for all the expensive investments needed to comply with the modern eco-friendly standards.

The built environment is also affected by the nitrogen crisis; suddenly no longer able to obtain the permits needed to start new construction work. Don Bremmers (#5) explains that heavy machinery is needed for construction. Old machines, while still up to the job, are no longer possible to use because of their NOx emissions. Even new machines, although a lot less polluting, are not free of NOx emissions, making it difficult with current legislation to obtain building permits. Electric machinery might prove to be a solution, but heavy electric machinery is too rare and therefore too expensive to be used at the moment. Battery capacity also limits the application substantially. However, Don Bremmers sees opportunities for the construction industry. Innovations in lightweight construction reduce construction energy, therefore emissions and replacing the old machinery seems like a logical move. He also suggests more rigorous maintenance of nitrophobic habitats to aid them in prospering in our nitrogen elevated environment.

Ronald Rovers (#3) also sees the ‘nitrogen crisis’ as an opportunity for the built environment to speed up innovation. Even though the built environment is far from the largest contributor to the nitrogen crisis, we are responsible for mass raw material usage and we contribute significantly to global warming. Innovation is much needed to steer the course of our industry in the right direction. The nitrogen crisis is just another example of why the built environment seriously needs to think about a more sustainable future.

All in all, the ‘nitrogen crisis’ initiated a lot of public debate and spurred people to act. Wim de Vries (#6), professor at Wageningen University and Research in the field of integrated nitrogen impact analysis, shared his expertise to give a possible future direction for our nitrogen legislation. He explained in his piece that current legislation is not well suited to deal with our current excess of nitrogen-containing compounds, especially in combination with granting local building permits. Measuring nitrogen deposition and its spread is highly complex, making many of the current day models unreliable. Even though nitrogen deposition is greater near the source, NOx and NH3 compounds can travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, resulting in high background pollution. This means nitrogen emissions should be monitored more on a national scale rather than a local scale. A new national cap should be introduced which would protect most of the Dutch nature reserves. About a 50 percent reduction is needed to protect 70 percent of Natura 2000-areas. Besides a more national focused policy, local policy should only be made near sensitive nature reserves. Also, a clear time frame should be introduced so that progress in reduction can easily be monitored.

Several angles have been shown during our nitrogen-debate. We tried to give a varied panel of writes a platform to voice their thoughts. When curious about the above-mentioned articles, click on the authors’ names to read the full article! We hoped you learned as much as we did. After the summer holidays we will be back with a new series in our current affairs section.