Dutch Nitrogen Crisis: A Cautionary Tale of Inaction on Pollution

The Dutch government plans to slash nitrogen emissions in half by 2030. As part of the current government’s coalition agreement, the Cabinet has set aside €25bn to deal with the “Dutch nitrogen crisis”. The Netherlands is struggling with high emissions of nitrogen from agriculture, transport and industry, which threaten the country’s nature and biodiversity.

Agriculture is the main culprit. It has been known for decades that the country’s growing livestock herd is causing environmental damage. Yet, policymakers did too little, too late. Now, drastic change is needed. The Dutch nitrogen crisis shows what can happen when climate action is not far-reaching enough at the early stages.

Cows ruminating in a meadow in Westbroek, the Netherlands.
Cows ruminating in a meadow in Westbroek, the Netherlands. The government plans to cut the national livestock herd by a third to solve the Dutch nitrogen crisis. (Photo by Frans Lemmens via Getty Images)

While nitrogen itself is not harmful, nitrogen oxides and ammonia are. The former come from the combustion of fuels and the latter from animal manure. An excess of these particles can lead to acid rain, deterioration of the soil, groundwater pollution and biodiversity loss.

Part of the Dutch government’s new plan is a drastic reduction of livestock by one-third over the next eight years. It wants to reach that goal by either buying out farmers, relocating farms that are close to vulnerable natural areas, or making farms more sustainable. While ideally this should happen voluntarily, the coalition agreement says if farmers refuse to cooperate, forced buyouts could be on the table.

Christianne van der Wal, minister for nature and nitrogen, says that while there is a future for agriculture in the Netherlands, the current system is untenable.

“There is no future […] if production leads to depletion of the soil, groundwater and surface water, or degradation of ecosystems,” wrote van der Wal in a letter to the House of Representatives in June 2021. “Not everything can be done everywhere, and it can no longer be done the way it used to be.”

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Second highest nitrogen balance in Europe

The Netherlands has the second highest nitrogen balance (or surplus) in Europe. On average, European countries had 68 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare between 2010 and 2015. The Netherlands had an average gross nitrogen balance of more than two times as much.

Since the announcement about livestock reduction, angry farmers have protested across the country. Concerned about the future of their sector, farmers have blockaded infrastructure, dumped manure, rubbish and asbestos on highways, and announced their discontent outside politicians’ homes. The protests can turn grim. When farmers broke through a blockade to get to Minister van der Wal’s home, police said “the situation was so unsafe for officers that no immediate action could be taken”.

In early August, the government sat down with several farmers’ organisations to talk about how a reduction in nitrogen emissions could be achieved in a way that works for all parties. LTO Nederland, an agricultural organisation, wants farmers to be able to participate in local initiatives for sustainability instead of facing top-down measures. However, Farmers Defence Force (FDF), the most prominent advocacy group in the protests, declined to attend the talks. Spokesperson Jeroen van Maanen told newspaper AD that the organisation does not believe there is a nitrogen crisis: “If nature in the Netherlands is already deteriorating, the question is to what extent this is due to nitrogen.”

The protests so far are just the beginning, FDF leader Mark van den Oever said in an interview with RTL: “Considering the mood, I think you can get ready for the hardest actions FDF has ever taken.”

The outcry has received international attention, with former US President Donald Trump expressing support for Dutch farmers in a speech in Florida at the end of July. Trump said that climate change is a hoax and praised the Dutch farmers for “courageously opposing the climate tyranny of the Dutch government”. (Ruminants are big methane emitters, a gas with 82.5 times the greenhouse intensity of CO2 over a 20-year period.)

The Dutch nitrogen crisis: Years of failed policy

A 50% reduction in nitrogen emissions and a one-third reduction in livestock over eight years is steep. But after years of failed policy, the government is left with few options if it wants to stick to international agreements. The Netherlands has over 160 protected areas under the EU's Natura 2000 nature conservation network. EU law requires member states to maintain and restore these areas and avoid activities that could results in their deterioration.

Dutch politicians have known for decades that excess manure in the Netherlands is a problem. In the 1980s, the Dutch government already learned how manure causes acid rain and scientists warned about increasing the size of the livestock herd across the country.

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Dutch agricultural production intensified after the Second World War and policies aimed at making the sector more efficient. Small, mixed farms were replaced by big, specialised companies. In 1950, there were 410,000 agricultural companies in the Netherlands; in 2016, that number had been reduced to 55,000, according to Statistics Netherlands. The number of pigs in that period increased from 1.9 million to 12.4 million. In 1950, the average cow produced 4,000 litres of milk a year. In 2015, this had doubled to 8,200 litres.

There were attempts to reduce nitrogen emissions. This has always required a hard look at the agricultural sector, which is responsible for almost half of all nitrogen depositions in the country. Nearly another third comes from abroad (although the Netherlands actually exports more than it imports), 12% from transportation and 9% from industry.

The attempts to get nitrogen under control were partly successful. Since 1990, the deposition of nitrogen (the particles that get absorbed in soil) has almost halved. However, according to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), nitrogen emissions are still too high.

The number of Dutch livestock increased after 2007, when the EU announced that the milk quota – a cap on the amount of milk that a farmer could sell every year without paying a levy – would end in 2015. The livestock increase led to warnings from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency about the risk to the environment. While ammonia emissions did not increase due to earlier measures in, for instance, feed, they did not decrease either.

In 2008, the Dutch Council of State ruled that to give a nitrogen-emitting development a permit, the developers had to show the project would not harm nature. In response to this ruling, the government decided to give permits to potentially harmful projects based on the assumption that future nitrogen emissions would decline due to countermeasures.

However, this approach failed. In 2019, the Council of State ruled that it ran counter to environmental law after natural areas kept deteriorating. This latest ruling means that in practice, it will be difficult for new nitrogen-emitting projects to get a permit unless the Dutch Cabinet comes up with structural measures to reduce emissions.

All this has led to the nitrogen crisis the Netherlands is facing today. The result, is that the government must make drastic changes – at the expense of farmers. The nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands shows energy and climate policymakers what radical actions they may need to take in future – and how violent the backlash may be – if they fall behind on measures to combat climate change.

It is not difficult to see parallels with the energy transition. In the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the UK is encouraging oil and gas companies to invest in fossil fuels with its Energy Security Strategy and an investment loophole in a new windfall tax. European countries are rushing to invest in new LNG infrastructure – and risking carbon lock-in. Oil companies are making record profits, but they are not investing in clean technologies at the same scale.

If governments keep thinking short term, while implementing half-baked or counterproductive measures, achieving climate goals will either fall out of reach or a more drastic turnaround will be needed. Citizens and businesses are unlikely to welcome either option.