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The Dutch Nitrogen Crisis – Will Rutte IV Finally Do Something About it?

🕑 3 min

By Melle De Ridder

1. Introduction

On Wednesday 5 October 2022, ‘nitrogen moderator’ Johan Remkes finally published his long-awaited report on the future of the Dutch cattle industry. Several Cabinet members have referred to his reconciliation project for the past weeks when asked what the strategy of the Dutch government will be after Farmer protests escalated this summer. But now, the report has been published, and hiding behind Remkes’ project is no longer possible.

2. What is the Dutch Nitrogen Crisis About?

This crisis is not just any recently developed crisis. In fact, it has been an ongoing problem since the early 1980s. For many decades, previous cabinets have ignored or postponed this, which brings us to the current atrocious state of Dutch nature. Farmers and this Cabinet’s nitrogen policy are diametrically opposed. The Netherlands is the world’s second-biggest agriculture exporter in terms of value, and this is mainly possible due to the technologies and innovations used in the Dutch intensive cattle industry. To illustrate: there are currently 480,000 goats, 850,000 sheep, 3,8 million cows, 11,4 million pigs, and a staggering 99,9 million chickens. All of this is on a land area of barely 42,000 square kilometers.

As you can imagine, these animals produce enormous amounts of waste, which contain ammonia, nitrogen oxide, and methane. All three components are harmful to the environment. Ammonia and nitrogen oxide cause the soil to turn more acidic, thus reducing the types of plants and insects able to grow on these terrains. This eventually leads to the disappearance of complete forests and ecological systems. Methane, on the other hand, is one of the strongest greenhouse gases. It is important to note, however, that the (bio)chemical industry, humans, and vehicles also emit considerable amounts of nitrogen oxide; though the intensive cattle industry has by far the largest share in the emission of ammonia, the strongest acidifying substance.

As a result of all these emissions, in 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that new permits for the construction of homes, roads, or even windmills are no longer allowed as long as there is not an immediate reduction in the emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia. The Dutch Nitrogen Crisis is thus about the question of whether it is reasonable to host over 115 million animals for meat while being the most densely populated country in the EU, and a country with a relatively small land size at the cost of a worsening infrastructure and complete shut-down of new housing projects.

3. What Caused the Sudden Rise of Attention?

On 10 June 2022, the Minister of Nitrogen Christianne van der Wal proposed a so-called nitrogen-emission reduction plan. A plan that led to furious and incomprehensible reactions, both by Dutch farmers as well as politicians. Massive protests took place, motorways and supermarkets were blocked, and even the Minister of Nitrogen’s house was visited by angry farmers who later attacked the police, leading to warning shots. Why? Because it entailed that in areas near protected ‘EU Natura-2000’ reserves, emissions would have had to be cut by nearly 70 to sometimes even 90 percent. This would have meant a complete halt to any cattle farm in such municipalities.

The division between the government and the countryside became greater and led to a massive distrust. As such, magical Johan Remkes came in to fix yet another national crisis. He was appointed to hold talks with all parties involved in the agricultural sector. With countless talks and effort, Remkes managed to take all parties aboard and drew his report named ‘What is Possible’, referring to the so-being ‘positive’ future for Dutch farmers.

Remkes proposed that, in line with the initial demand of the Cabinet, before 2030, 50 percent of all nitrogen, ammonia, and methane emissions are to be reduced. Forced buyouts should not be a taboo; though the aim should be on a voluntary basis, compensated with the 25-billion-euro budget available. In addition, he announced that the 500-600 largest and most polluting intensive-cattle industries must quit within one year. This is a sharpening compared to the Cabinet’s policy. Lastly, what gladdened the farmers was that Remkes acknowledges that the government had bad communication, no perspective, and no honesty. Also, in 2025 and 2028, the policy ought to be reviewed to see whether emission cuts are going in the right direction.

4. What Now?

The Dutch Cabinet has said it needs one-and-a-half weeks to study the report and come to a joint statement. What can be concluded is that all parties are somewhat happy with the end result as there is clearly respect shown for farmers, the 2030 end goal remains intact, and flexibility is guaranteed in the trajectory towards that.

Sources: NOS, CBS, Rijksoverheid, Tweede Kamer

Written by Melle De Ridder

October 2022

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