Now that thousands of construction projects have stopped because our country is emitting too much nitrogen, NUjij, the discussion platform of NU.nl, received dozens of questions about nitrogen and how things should go on. In this article we answer eight questions from our readers.
1. What is nitrogen exactly?
About 80 percent of the atmosphere consists of nitrogen (N). This is not harmful to humans, animals and plants. In fact, we need nitrogen to live - every breath is four fifths of nitrogen.
A small chemistry lesson: nitrogen easily attaches itself to other atoms, such as oxygen (O) and hydrogen (H). At that time, reactive nitrogen, such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) and ammonia (NH3), is produced.
Nitrogen oxides are mainly emitted by industry and traffic. Agriculture is largely responsible for the emission of ammonia.
Nitrogen oxide and ammonia are central to the report that the advisory board of former minister Johan Remkes presented on Wednesday.
2. How harmful is nitrogen to nature?
Reactive nitrogen also occurs in nature, but is difficult to obtain for plants. That is why plants try to take full advantage of the nitrogen we emit.
Species that grow faster from nitrogen than other plant species benefit more from the man-made surplus of nitrogen. Stinging nettles, for example, overgrow orchids and grasses are increasingly being seen in places where the heath used to bloom.
This ultimately leads to a loss of biodiversity, because not only plants are overgrown, but also because the habitat of animals that benefit from the disappeared plants is affected. Nature therefore ultimately consists of fewer species.
The Netherlands has 160 Natura 2000 areas, which must be protected according to European rules in order to preserve biodiversity. 118 of those protected natural areas suffer from a too high nitrogen load.
See also: The damage caused by nitrogen: 'Nature becomes a fast food restaurant'
3. Does the nitrogen problem play suddenly?
No, politicians have known for a long time that the Netherlands is dealing with a too high nitrogen deposition. It is also the reason that the Nitrogen Approach Program (PAS) was introduced in 2015. Based on the PAS, permits were granted for construction projects that caused nitrogen deposition in Natura 2000 areas.
The PAS allowed nitrogen deposition to be compensated only after construction. In practice, however, this did not always lead to anything. On the other hand, nitrogen emissions increased in some places.
The European Court of Justice already concluded in November last year that the PAS does not act according to the European directives to protect nature, and the Council of State agreed to this at the end of May.
Since then, the PAS can no longer be used to grant a permit for a construction project that ensures nitrogen deposition in the vicinity of protected nature. The result is that thousands of projects in the Netherlands have suddenly stopped.
4. Who is actually responsible for all this nitrogen emissions?
Nearly half (46 percent) of all nitrogen deposition in 2018 came from agriculture. In addition, almost a third from abroad came across the border. Road traffic was responsible for more than 6 percent, just like households.
The remainder of the nitrogen deposition (almost 10 percent) was due to, among other things, other traffic (including aviation), international shipping, industry and construction.
See also: Committee advice: Speed reduction required to limit nitrogen emissions
5. The construction industry is responsible for only a small part for the emission of nitrogen. Why is construction not allowed anyway?
The Netherlands applies a low limit when it comes to nitrogen emissions. In fact, if even a little nitrogen ends up in a Natura 2000 area as a result of a construction project, then a permit is required.
Although construction is responsible for only 0.6 percent of nitrogen emissions, those permits are therefore needed. This also applies to the construction of energy-neutral homes or wind turbines.
Whether the economy suffers or not, the Council of State has no message about that. The highest administrative court only looked at whether the PAS complied with the European directives.
6. And our neighboring countries, how do they deal with the nitrogen problem?
German nature reserves are much larger, so the nitrogen causes less damage.
In addition, Germany has a more flexible policy when it comes to granting permits for construction projects that emit nitrogen. In the Netherlands, measures must be taken if only one gram of nitrogen is emitted; in Germany that limit is higher.
Just like the Netherlands, Belgium runs up against the limits of how much nitrogen nature can handle in the country.
Belgium does not have a central program, such as the PAS. But in the end the outcome comes down to the same thing. In Belgium, too, measures must be taken to reduce nitrogen emissions after the implementation of a construction project.
It seems that Belgium too is going through a nitrogen crisis if environmental movements in that country raise the issue with the judge, as happened in the Netherlands.
77Why does nitrogen cause so many problems in the Netherlands?
7. Why are Remkes recommendations not about shipping and aviation?
Because very many construction projects cannot take place now, the government's request was to issue a recommendation within two months, which would state how permission could again be given for the most important construction projects.
Remkes and the other members of the advisory committee have therefore investigated how the emission of nitrogen can be reduced relatively easily, creating room for important projects.
That space has been found in reducing the speed of road traffic and buying out livestock farms that emit a lot of nitrogen.
However, the Remkes Commission is not yet done with that. Until May 2020, it focuses on how we should deal with nitrogen in the long term. Shipping and aviation will also be included in that advice.
See also: Traffic experts: 'Faster at home with reduction in speed limit'
8. How should things continue?
Politicians must now decide whether to adopt Remkes' advice and how space will be created to allow construction projects to continue. The expectation is that this decision will follow next week.
The file is so complex that Remkes does not expect that a permit can be granted for all projects in the short term. Here too, politicians will have to determine which projects should be given priority.
Remkes also advises not to use all the space that is freed up in the emission of nitrogen. The goal is to structurally reduce emissions and that goal should not be forgotten by politicians.
See also: Remkes on nitrogen advice: 'We will not get anywhere if we are careful about sacred houses'