Breaking Down the Nitrogen Crisis

by Madelon van den Hoek Ostende

What is the nitrogen crisis?

When it comes to current issues that occupy Dutch politics, there seems to be one issue that is drawing the most attention, which is the nitrogen crisis. The nitrogen crisis has occupied the minds of politicians, farmers, and citizens since its onset in 2019. But what is the nitrogen crisis and why does receive so much attention?

In this article, I will explain a little bit more about the nitrogen crisis. I will talk about how it has developed into a crisis and why it is that it seems to divide the country to a certain extent. But before I go into this, it is important to first give you an understanding of what nitrogen is, before I talk about how nitrogen has led to a widespread national crisis.

What is nitrogen?

Nitrogen is a colorless gas that makes up about 78% of the atmosphere.[1] This abundance of nitrogen in the atmosphere is not harmful to people or the environment, it is in fact an essential element of life on earth. However, certain chemical compounds (meaning any substance composed of two or more chemical elements) are in fact harmful when there is too much of it in the atmosphere. When we are talking about harmful nitrogen, we are mostly talking about two types of chemical compounds that include nitrogen as one of its elements. These are ammonia and nitrogen oxide. When there is too much of either of these chemical compounds in the atmosphere this can gravely affect the environment. In the natural nitrogen cycle, the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere is regulated through the process of circulation through different ecosystems. The discharge of ammonia and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere is referred to as emission. The ammonia and nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere eventually end up on the ground as well (for example when it’s raining), this is called deposition.[2] The result of this nitrogen cycle, is that the concentration of nitrogen remains balanced. However, if this cycle is disturbed by human activities, this can negatively affect the environment.

The effects of too much nitrogen

Due to various human activities, the quantity of ammonia and nitrogen oxide has increased significantly. There are many ways in which humans disturb the concentration of nitrogen in the atmosphere. Industrial processes, traffic, and intensive agriculture all emit ammonia and nitrogen oxide. Due to increased ammonia and nitrogen oxide in the soil and atmosphere, a number of issues arise. The first one being the decrease of biodiversity in areas where the deposition of nitrogen in the soil has increased significantly. Due to the acidification of the soil, many plants that do well in nitrogen-rich areas will slowly start overtaking the plants that do well in nitrogen-poor conditions. Blackberries, nettles, and different types of grasses do well in nitrogen-rich soils. In this way, this vegetation starts replacing the vegetation that used to be part of the nature reserve. This, in turn, causes animals who are dependent on this nitrogen-poor environment to disappear from these areas as well. Thus, an increase in nitrogen in the soil unleashes a chain reaction that leads to a loss of biodiversity. Secondly, an increase in nitrogen in the atmosphere can also affect human health. An excess of nitrogen poses increased risks for people with respiratory problems and asthma. Nitrogen oxide can cause irritations to the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as it can cause infections in the airways.[3]

Why is there a nitrogen ‘crisis’ in the Netherlands?

Why the concentration of nitrogen in the Netherlands poses such a hazard that it has become a crisis, is because the concentration of ammonia and nitrogen oxide in the Netherlands is much higher than in many other European countries.[4] This is mostly because of the Netherlands’ intensive livestock farming. Moreover, these livestock farms are often located near nature reserves (so-called Natura 2000 areas, that are protected by EU-directives) that are affected by the ammonia and nitrogen oxide that these farms emit. This issue is not new to the Netherlands, since it has occupied policymakers since the 1970s. However, in 2019 the Raad van State (the Council of State) passed a judgment that the Netherlands must drastically decrease the concentration of nitrogen, following a lawsuit by several environmental organisations.[5] This meant that the Dutch government’s previous policies, most notably the PAS (Plan Aanpak Stikstof) was deemed inadequate to reduce the concentration of ammonia and nitrogen oxide. Due to PAS being deemed inadequate to reduce nitrogen, the Raad van State decided that it could no longer be used for granting permission for activities that emit nitrogen. Following this judgment, it was decided that the government must come up with an alternative plan to reduce nitrogen.

The judgment by the Raad van State had various consequences. For example, construction projects that were granted a permit through the PAS were suddenly put on hold, leading to protests from the construction sector. Similarly, the agricultural sector in particular has been a topic of nitrogen reduction, because of its substantial impact on nitrogen levels. Since around half of the nitrogen deposition in nature areas comes from agriculture, proposals were made to reduce the livestock by half.[6] This led to protests from farmers as well.

This is where we are now. The creation of a solid, concrete plan to systematically reduce nitrogen in the Netherlands has proven difficult so far. There are too many conflicting interests, resulting in an ongoing discussion on how to proceed. It has been labeled a crisis, due to the urgency to find a solution to reduce nitrogen levels. But it is also a political crisis, because of the many interests involved, which makes it difficult to find a solution. In order to understand how the nitrogen crisis has developed into a crisis, even though it was already known that the Netherlands’ nitrogen emissions were too high, we must look at the previous policies. In a later blog, we will explain how the nitrogen crisis has developed into the crisis we experience today.


[2] Ibid.