You might have seen it in the news: Dutch farmers ravaging cities with their tractors. But this week also builders, contractors, dredgers, and gardeners have protested in The Hague, where our government is based. They are angry, because a lot of their activities and projects have been halted, and farmers in the vicinity of protected natural (Natura 2000) areas might have to move or be bought out.
Why? Because of the Programma Aanpak Stikstof (PAS), a programme designed to reduce nitrogen deposition in Natura 2000 (a European network of protected natural areas) areas while still allowing economic growth and development. Cleverly, this programme allowed nitrogen-emitting activities in the vicinity of these areas if there were planned compensating measures to reduce future emissions, as well as future measures to reduce the degradation of Natura 2000 areas. So, essentially, taking a mortgage on future compensating measures. But on the 29thof May 2019, the Council of State judged that the PAS could no longer be used to allow nitrogen-emitting activities, because this is challenging European law.
So now, according to some people, The Netherlands is in lock-down. Building projects have been halted, and Dutch livestock numbers need to be reduced. Of course it is understandable that builders and farmers are upset; they are just trying to protect their livelihood.
But as with any environmental issue these days, there is a lot of misinformation spread about the effects of nitrogen on ecosystems. Many people claim that “nitrogen is good for nature” because nitrogen stimulates plant growth. Also, “the loss of one or two species is not an ecological disaster”, and “why should we protect heath lands if they are not natural” and, following from that “why should we protect species that are not supposed to be here anyway”. Another nice one is “well I can see grass everywhere, so nature is doing really well”.
To challenge this (excuse the wording) nonsense, I have started tweeting facts about the effects of nitrogen deposition on terrestrial ecosystems. In Dutch. Because nitrogen deposition is a global problem, but it is a particularly significant, and urgent, problem in The Netherlands. When I started my degree in Environmental Sciences at Wageningen University in 1996, nitrogen deposition was high on the political agenda. In those days, the average nitrogen deposition in The Netherlands equalled around 40 kg nitrogen per hectare per year (see the numbers in this report – it’s in Dutch, but have a look at the figure on page 21). There have been measures implemented to reduce nitrogen emissions, and the subsequent deposition: the average nitrogen deposition now equals 21 kg per hectare per year (around 1500 moles of nitrogen per hectare per year). A significant reduction, but still far too high.
And this chronic accumulation of reactive nitrogen is not just resulting in the loss of a few rare species (which is bad enough), it is resulting in the modification of ALL our ecosystems, with altered functioning as a consequence. Because nitrogen enrichment affects plant communities, but also alters nutrient balances in native species. It can facilitate the establishment of invasive species, and alter animal and insect populations through changing plant flower abundance and diversity, plant growth and soil cover, and the quality of plant leaves. It directly affects the soil through altering nitrogen availability and through acidification, and this in turn affects soil microbial communities and soil food webs. These changes have consequences for the functioning of soils, and for plant growth and community composition. And together, all these changes in the organisms and populations that form ecosystems can result in those ecosystems becoming more vulnerable to other global change drivers, such as droughts and diseases.
So it is not just a case of “losing a few rare species that don’t belong in The Netherlands anyway”. It is about changing ALL our ecosystems, and reducing the biodiversity around us. And while it seems that many people view nature in The Netherlands as a luxury that we can do without, it is far from a luxury. It underpins our existence.
Follow me, or the hashtag #stikstoffeitjes (“nitrogen factlets”), on twitter if you are interested in the scientific evidence for the above changes as a result of chronic nitrogen deposition.