Unwinding The Netherlands

How a spatial approach to resolving the nitrogen question can act as a lever for tackling other major challenges and thereby offer a new perspective for the countryside.




Jan Willem Erisman, Universiteit Leiden, Centrum voor Milieuwetenschappen.
Tekstuele bijdragen: Prof. Kees Bastmeijer; Roel Jongeneel; Krijn Poppe; Shera van den Wittenboer

Design Year


 A new cabinet must in the near future take rapid and far-reaching measures in three specific regions to reduce nitrogen emissions. This will create room for a long-term approach to tackle other urgent problems and the bundle of obligations that the state has to unwind. This is the argument of Berno Strootman and Jan Willem Erisman in the report Unwinding the Netherlands.  

The Netherlands State has many legally binding obligations in such fields as the climate, water quality and nature conservation. At the same time, large demands are made by housing, agriculture and recreation. Because we have been limping from crisis to crisis in the last few years, the report lists all of those obligations. There are a good many of them, but unfortunately the ministries do not have a clear picture of them. The lack of an integral strategy leads to the piling up of problems.

As a result of this complex puzzle of treaties and interests, the state is less and less often able to meet its obligations, resulting in successful legal proceedings against the Dutch State such as that of Urgenda in 2019. The most urgent problem is that of nitrogen emissions, but the regulations on this result in the stranding of many other essential projects.

New calculating models make it possible to pinpoint with much more precision that before where the deposits come from. They reveal that besides the top polluters on the sandy soils, there are two specific areas where measures must be taken rapidly to reduce nitrogen emissions. These are the Green Heart with its dairy farming and problematic land subsidence; and the Gelderse Vallei with an enclave on the Veluwe. In the latter area, many calf farms have already registered to be sold. A drastic nitrogen reduction in those regions that will require attention later affords the room needed to unwind the rest of the bundle.

Nitrogen reduction in the short term provides breathing space to work with an integral, long-term approach on reforming farming in six specific key areas. This will unable us – unlike the present situation – to meet international targets for climate, water, nature conservation and biodiversity. This calls for an integral approach with a responsible minister and clear policy aims per region. And it will cost money, a lot of money: at least 2 billion a year over a period of 10 years. But we will then be able to look forward to a more sustainable and less wound up Netherlands.

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