The Netherlands is in another lockdown and it's not because of covid

— 4 minute read

If you hear something about The Netherlands in the news, terms like "lockdown" and "fake news" may make it seem like the country has been hit by a new wave of coronavirus. But watch the footage of hay bales set on fire and tractors storming the city of The Hague and you'll quickly realise that something else is going on.

The Netherlands are in crisis - multiple crises, actually - and most of them are strongly interconnected. Bearing that in mind, the infamous 'nitrogen crisis' is not only a very tough one, but solving it might just be the key to solving many of the Dutchies' current problems.

What about it?

The air that we breathe is made up of approximately 78 percent nitrogen. Everyone needs nitrogen to survive. No problems just yet. But that changes when nitrogen reacts with other molecules. When we burn fossil fuels for example, nitrogen reacts with oxygen and forms nitrogen oxides. Another example is nitrogen reacting with hydrogen, resulting in ammonia, which is the main element in the manure we use on farms.

This so-called reactive nitrogen actually is harmful, and the Netherlands emits extremely high doses of it. And although plants need nitrogen to survive, too many of it will result in monocultures and a loss of biodiversity. Bees, butterflies, and insects will disappear, and in turn, the animals that depend on eating them.

Monocultures can lead to soil acidification, degradation, pests and diseases, and a loss of biodiversity.

How to turn a problem into a crisis

As problematic as that may sound, it does not yet explain how this ecological problem evolved to the juridical crisis it is today.

That basically happened overnight.

The European Union Habitats Directive identifies Natura 2000 areas which the member states should protect in order to conserve flora and fauna species and maintain biodiversity. With high concentrations of nitrogen posing a treat to many species, regulating the deposition of nitrogen in the Natura 2000 areas became one of the main priorities. The Dutch government organized this in the 'PAS' (Programma Aanpak Stikstof), which they used as a guideline to grant permits for nitrogen emitting activities nearby the Natura 2000 areas. If, for example, you want to farm or build apartments next to one of these areas, you need a 'nitrogen permit' first.

So far, so good, until 2019 when the court ruled that many of these permits were unlawfully granted and in contradiction with European law. The Dutch government had been a bit too optimistic. Instead of looking at the current nitrogen deposition, they already accounted for the expected (or hoped for) future positive effects of measures and were granting permits for future activities before nitrogen concentrations were actually low enough. They were basically overspending their nitrogen credit card. Rookie mistake.

As a direct result of this ruling, many of the granted permits were declared invalid, and thousands of projects - especially the construction of new housing, new roads, and agricultural expansion - were halted. Economic activity was seriously slowed down, and yes, you could very well say we were already in lockdown before it was cool.

The Dutch government wouldn’t be the Dutch government if they didn’t try out a couple of other loopholes or "geitenpaadjes", but when these didn't work out either, it was clear: the nitrogen problem was officially a nitrogen crisis.

In 2019, the court ruled that the Dutch PAS program was in contradiction with European law.

So - is this a European problem or a Dutch problem?

When it comes to nitrogen, European problems are Dutch problems and vice versa. And not only because the way the European Union works. The Dutch export their problems to other countries via air. In fact, most of the emitted nitrogen deposits across Dutch borders and pollutes air and waters in neighbouring countries. This "export" of nitrogen is about four times as big as the import of nitrogen that is emitted elsewhere and deposits in the Netherlands.

If we want to preserve nature in our little country and be a better neighbour (and being part of the EU, we must), the Dutch have to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50%. This makes nitrogen one of the main challenges for the Netherlands in the 21st century.