The Dutch Nitrogen Crisis

Bijgewerkt: 10 feb 2020

On May 29th, the Dutch Council of State ruled that the active Dutch nitrogen policy, “Programma Aanpak Stikstof” (PAS) (active since July 1st, 2015), conflicted with the European Habitat Directive (directive 92/43/EEG), and could no longer be used to grant permits [1]. Since then, many construction projects have been put on hold. As of now they are required to have a project plan that is completely free of nitrogen emissions. Some politicians are suggesting cutting the amount of livestock down by half, as the agricultural industry is responsible for 46% of nitrogen deposition [2]. This resulted in farmers protesting and blocking the highways and ‘seizing’ the city centre of The Hague with their tractors.

The Dutch government seems to have arrived at a deadlock that was in the making since PAS was introduced, and now needs to search for solutions that drastically reduce nitrogen emissions. It also has limited timeframe to do so, as waiting too long will have a negative effect on construction companies that cannot execute their projects without a permit. However, maybe there are more solutions to the problem that can be put in place without the need of politicians discussing possible options. So, what can the industries that are affected do to prevent being harmed by the nitrogen crisis?

What is the origin of this nitrogen crisis?

The European Habitat Directive (EHD) has been instated to preserve natural habitats of wild flora and fauna. Special preservation zones, called ‘Natura 2000’ are chosen within each country, which are protected by this directive. However, the increased precipitation of nitrogen has been damaging these Natura 2000 regions. In order to have a clear policy on which construction projects can be granted permits, the Netherlands installed the PAS-policy in 2015. This policy granted permits for projects that would be emitting nitrogen now but anticipated future savings that would reduce the total emission over time to or below zero. An example is the construction of a nitrogen emission-free housing block. This year however, the Dutch Council of State has ruled that the policy is not in line with the EHD, as these predicted ‘nitrogen-savings’ are very uncertain. This ruling can further be supported by Figure 1, which clearly shows that the critical nitrogen deposition values were already exceeded, for some areas even by up to 75%.

Figure 1 – Critical nitrogen depositions values

The result: only construction projects that have zero nitrogen emissions can be granted a permit. Thus, most building projects are now at a stand still.

How does nitrogen harm nature?

The nitrogen crisis actually does not refer to N, or nitrogen, itself, which is a harmless gas that takes up 78% of the air. The substances that are harmful to nature are two types of nitrogen compounds: NOx, or nitrogen oxides, and NH3, or ammonia. Let’s discuss both more extensively.

Nitrogen oxides are a compound of nitrogen and oxygen. They are created during different combustion processes at high temperatures, mainly by the combustion of fossil fuels. It is therefore not surprising that most nitrogen oxides that end up in the air result from traffic and industry. These airborne nitrogen oxides can be harmful for humans, as they can enter the smallest branches of the respiratory system, and humans can become more sensitive to infections. They can also be harmful to nature, by precipitating into it through a process called deposition. The deposition enriches soil with nitrogen; which enables plants that grow well on enriched soils, such as nettles, to supplant rare plants that depend on soil that is poor on nutrients, for example orchids. Animals depending on these rare plants disappear as well, resulting in a much lower biodiversity.

Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. It is being produced across the world and used for fertilizer production, cleaning solutions and as coolant for large cooling installations. However, a lot of it is produced unintentionally in the livestock industry. After an animal eats proteins, it is created and ends up in the manure. Most of the ammonia originating from livestock is a result from the nitrogen present in urine and feces of cattle and pigs, and the uric acid of poultry manure [5]. It is formed from the biological and chemical breakdown of manure protein, uric acid and urea during manure storage and decomposition. Although airborne ammonia can be harmful for humans, this is only the case in large concentrations that hardly ever occur. However, just as with nitrogen oxides, the deposition of ammonia results in fertilization of the soil, resulting in lower biodiversity.

Nitrogen oxides and ammonia have a different origin, but it’s also important to understand how far they can be carried. Nitrogen oxides can carry very far; meaning that a lot of it is exported to outside of the Dutch borders, but at the same time nitrogen oxides emitted by other countries are coming back into the Netherlands. Ammonia tends to precipitate mostly close to its origin, maximally a few tens of kilometers away depending on wind conditions.

Figure 2 – Summary of how nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia (NH3) are created and how far they are carried before deposition

What the Dutch government can do to solve this crisis

At the moment, the main focus of the Dutch government in solving the nitrogen emission crisis is cutting down nitrogen emissions. As by far the biggest nitrogen pollution originates from livestock, suggestions were made that these should be halved. These suggestions led to massive demonstrations by angry farmers, with politicians trying to gain sympathy by saying that there won’t be any cutting down on livestock.

Another suggestion is to make changes to the mobility sector. They can reduce the speed limits on highways, from 130 km/h to 120 km/h or even 100 km/h; even though not everyone is too happy about this, it is a solution that is easy to implement, and as a side-effect reduces traffic and accidents,  which therefore reduces the nitrogen pollution even more. However, the total reduction in nitrogen emissions that can be made, is not enough to solve the crisis.

The Dutch government could also further stimulate people to switch to electric vehicles. From 2020, the additional tax liability for company EV’s in the Netherlands will be increased, as a result of a policy that was introduced before the nitrogen crisis. With the current knowledge, the government could decide to delay this policy, if this will accelerate the growth of EV’s.

The Netherlands’ neighbours, Germany and Belgium, do not suffer from the same crisis as they have a different system; Germany uses a threshold value for the maximum amount of nitrogen precipitation for which no permit is needed, and in Flanders, Belgium, a threshold of 5% of the critical deposition value is used to determine which projects do not need a permit. However, according to lawyer Paul Bodden, these rules are also not in accordance with the European Nitrogen Emissions Policy. The difference is that no one has litigated against the German and Belgium policies, and they will be blocked in the Netherlands by the same court ruling under which the PAS has perished [6].  Moreover, the Netherlands is a far denser country, with Natura 2000 regions already situated closer to planned construction sites.

How construction companies can take actions themselves

Now that the PAS is no longer valid, the maximum amount of nitrogen that can be emitted by a project in the Netherlands is zero. This is problematic, as many projects were designed to have a nitrogen emission that was previously allowed by the PAS but are now stuck without a permit. However, a permit can still be gained by redesigning the project plans to actually have zero nitrogen emissions.

An example is the collaboration between companies Gutami Solar and Koolen Industries, which developed a project plan for constructing a solar farm in a completely nitrogen-free way [7]. For example, all materials will be transported to the project location using electrical boats and vehicles, and employees must use electric forms of transport to go to the project location.

Although at this time it is not possible for each type of project to operate 100% electrically, it is worth looking into how to reduce nitrogen emissions as much as possible, so that smaller countermeasures are needed. For example, where machinery is needed that has no nitrogen-free alternative, a large tent could be put up over the location that has air filters installed. This might be difficult when constructing a long road, but when building houses this can be easier. What can also work is to separate all project activities that are inevitably emitting nitrogen from the activities that can be done electrically and nitrogen-free. The nitrogen emitting activities can then be carried out at an external location where nitrogen emission is either allowed or can be contained.

Figure 3 – Examples of nitrogen sources in construction projects. By either exchanging machines and vehicles for electrical counterparts or executing the nitrogen-emitting activities to areas where the nitrogen can be contained, a nitrogen-free project plan could be devised.

How the Dutch agricultural industry can further improve to prevent cuts

The ammonia emission coming from livestock is a result of different chemical and biological breakdown processes. These processes and how fast they occur are affected by a great deal of factors, many of which can be reduced by proper manure management. An important step is to keep urine and feces separated. In the Netherlands, a lot of manure management processes are being used to reduce nitrogen emissions [8]. The results of this manure management can be seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4 – The Nitrogen Use Efficiency, a ratio that describes how much of the nitrogen in fodder is in the end lost in the atmosphere as ammonia [9]. The Netherlands have a high nitrogen use efficiency, meaning that relatively little ammonia is produced per kilogram of fodder that is being fed.

It can be seen that the Netherlands is clearly overall the most efficient in preventing nitrogen from resulting in airborne ammonia, and that is already compared to the more prosperous and sustainable European countries. This implies that if the Dutch livestock is halved by reducing export, other countries that are less nitrogen efficient will have to compensate by producing more livestock products. Although these countries might be less dense and have more opportunities to put up farms far away from Natura 2000 areas, the total amount of ammonia being produced will drastically increase, harming nature even more. This effect should be evaluated by the European policy makers.

For now, Dutch farmers are already close to a limit on what they can do directly themselves to further reduce nitrogen emissions, without having to reduce livestock. To prevent having to reduce their size, new innovations are needed, such as the CowToilet [10]. To prevent urine mixing with manure and creating ammonia, the CowToilet aims to teach the cow to urinate in a special ‘cow urinal’. About 70% of urine can be intercepted this way; this could massively reduce the amount of ammonia pollution by cows.

Figure 5 – The Cow Toilet stimulates the nerves that cause a urination reflex, to force a voluntary urination into the container. After a while, the reflex of urinating during eating becomes a habit, and stimulation is no longer needed

Greenfish can advise on becoming nitrogen-free

The nitrogen crisis brings many challenges to the Dutch market, and the expectation is that political decisions will not solve problems in the short-term. It is therefore important for affected industries to quickly take action themselves. Farmers are dependent on more innovative solutions for reducing nitrogen emissions, and construction companies should look into redesigning their project plans to cancel out any nitrogen emissions near Natura 2000 places. This should not just be done to solve short-term problems, but also to be futureproof, as the world demands a more sustainable approach to what we’re doing. The consultants of Greenfish are committed to lead businesses to a sustainable and profitable future, which includes a future with significantly lower nitrogen emissions. They are willing to take on the challenge of engineering innovative nitrogen-reducing systems for the agricultural sector, and they can help construction companies overcome the challenges they are facing now by modernizing their plans of action and making them nitrogen-free, allowing them to get ahead of competition by being the first allowed to build again.

Koen Emmer – Junior Consultant at Greenfish Nassim Daoudi – Chief Executive Officer at Greenfish

[1] Rijksoverheid, “Uitspraak Raad van State en gevolgen einde PAS.”

[5] Zhao, R. Manuzon, and L. J. Hadlocon, “Ammonia Emission from Animal Feeding Operations and Its Impacts,” 2016.

[6] Smit, “Stikstofcrisis: ‘Herinvoering drempelwaarde erg lastig’ –,” 02-Oct-2019

[7] E. van Gastel and M. de Jonge Baas, “Gutami Solar en Koolen Industries willen stikstofvrij zonnepark bouwen,” Solar Magazine, 27-Aug-2019

[8] J. Mosquera et al., “Overzicht van maatregelen om de ammoniakemissie uit de veehouderij te beperken,” 2017

[9] C. M. Groenestein et al., “Comparison of ammonia emissions related to nitrogen use efficiency of livestock production in Europe,” Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 211, pp. 1162–1170, Feb. 2019

[10] Hanskamp, “CowToilet, the automatically and voluntary urinating system from Hanskamp.”

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