Dutch farmers are showing how the fight against global warming is not easy, even in the European Union, one of the most active parts of the world in tackling climate change. The latest crisis is in the Netherlands where farmers say new regulations amonia and nitrogen emissions could put them out of business.
Farmers use tractors to block arterial roads in Netherlands protesting government moves to curb nitrogen emissions.
In an effort to lower ammonia and nitrogen oxide emissions that are prohibited by European Union laws, the Dutch government has taken out a series of reforms and is offering to buy significant farm and industrial polluters. The Dutch farmers claim that this move will force them out of their business.
The Need To Reduce Nitrogen Emissions
The government has argued that nitrogen can be polluting when certain chemicals like ammonia (NH3), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and nitrous oxide (N2O), are present in large amounts. Nitrogen oxides are gasses produced by the fuel burning process and is also known as the “forgotten greenhouse gas”.
Nitrogen pollution in the Netherlands is primarily caused by two sources: burning fossil fuels for energy or transportation (nitrogen oxides), and manure produced by the livestock farming industry (ammonia and nitrous oxide). Artificial nitrogen-containing fertilizers are also a source of pollution both during production and when they are overused on agricultural land.
Even though nitrogen is necessary for plants to flourish, it also poses one of the biggest dangers to biodiversity. Fish and aquatic life may be affected by soluble nitrogen. When manure and urine are combined to make ammonia it can affect the environment when it drains into lakes, rivers and oceans. It also leads to fungi and algae which can clog waterways and cause fish to die.
Reforms By The Government
In 2019, the Dutch Administrative Court, which is the highest administrative body in the Netherlands, deemed insufficient the Dutch government's Nitrogen Action Program (also known as the PAS), a program to reduce the effects of nitrogen. In order to comply with the ruling, a new rule was passed to reduce nitrogen emissions which was consequently adopted by the Dutch Parliament on December 17, 2020.
Thus with the new rule, the government plans to reduce pollution emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, primarily by reducing nitrogen oxide and ammonia emissions. The targets, according to ministers, is an "unavoidable transformation" that aims to improve the quality of air, land, and water.
Emissions in the Netherlands is very high - 70 per cent in the areas close to the European Union’s protected area (Natura 2000 zone) and 95 per cent in other areas, this has led the government to take stringent measures.
As per the government, livestock emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia must be significantly decreased in areas that are close to natural areas that are a part of the 27-nation European Union's network of protected habitats for endangered plants and animals.
According to the government’s target, by 2030, nitrogen sensitive Natura 2000 zones should be brought back to a healthy range along with the set target to reduce emissions by 50 per cent. Natura 2000 zones are the world's largest and most well-organized network of protected areas. It provides a safe refuge for some of Europe's most precious and endangered species and habitats.
The government is all set to buy out farms leading to the emissions. It has also set up a number of funds to buy the farms and help some farms use cutting-edge methods to reduce nitrogen emissions. The special focus will be on the farms that are close to the European Union’s Natura 2000 zones.
In the effort to create reforms and laws to decrease the nitrogen based pollution, every activity that could result in the emission of nitrogen, such as farming or the construction of new houses will now require a warrant or a license as construction emits nitrogen oxides which leads to the pollution.
The government's nitrogen reduction targets have sparked widespread farmer protests in the country. They are opposing the reforms stating that it will force them out of their business as the plan to cut nitrogen emissions by 2030 may necessitate the closure of 11,000 farms. Farmers claim that this will hit them hard because they have made significant investments towards being ecologically friendly.
Meat and dairy farms are responsible for 41 per cent of the country's nitrogen emissions. The halt on the construction has stopped the expansion of the dairy and poultry farms, which contributes to pollution as nitrogen from animal waste takes the form of ammonia. The reforms will also likely involve a reduction in cattle rearing.
In order to oppose the government's plans, 40,000 farmers protested. Farmers drove their tractors across the Netherlands causing traffic jams throughout the country. Tractors have become a symbol of the protests as they are being used widely in these protests. With hundreds of tractors, farmers have blocked the roads and highways. They have also gathered outside regional assemblies, and ministers' residences to protest, and have blocked food distribution centers. Hay bales have been thrown on roads, individuals and small groups have protested outside towns and municipal halls, sometimes by lighting bonfires. These protests are described by Prime Minister Mark Rutte as "wilfully endangering others, damaging our infrastructure and threatening people who help with the clean-up.” However, no resolution seems to be on offer and chances are these protests will continue for sometime.