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Netherlands raises pressure on farmers over nitrogen emissions


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The Netherlands will be forced to choose between agriculture or building new homes and infrastructure if it is to meet its climate targets unless the farming sector cuts nitrogen emissions, the country’s nature minister has warned.

In comments set to intensify the government’s dispute with farmers over emissions of the potent greenhouse gas, Christianne van der Wal said in an interview that the Netherlands could no longer build urgently needed infrastructure without cutting nitrogen emissions elsewhere, notably in the agriculture sector.

“There will first have to be nitrogen cuts before there is room for new development such as new houses and sustainable energy investments. It is our economic lockdown,” she said. “My message is not the message [farmers] want to hear.”

The Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, has pledged to halve its nitrogen emissions by 2030. Agriculture accounts for 46 per cent of the country’s output of the potent greenhouse gas.

Van der Wal is trying to convince farmers to reduce livestock herds or leave the industry to cut emissions. But talks are at an impasse and angry farmers worried about their livelihoods last year staged multiple protests, picketing supermarket distribution centres, blockading roads, airports and train stations and dumping slurry at van der Wal’s home.

Earlier this month, the government set a target for the energy and industrial sectors of a 38 per cent cut by 2030 compared with 2019, and of 25 per cent for transport. It has yet to set a target for agriculture but government advisers have recommended a 41 per cent cut.

The emissions clampdown stems from a 2019 decision by the country’s supreme court, which ruled that no more permits to emit nitrogen could be issued because the country had breached EU nature protection laws. This means permits only become available when they are given up by other businesses.

Van der Wal said the agriculture sector should be prepared to take action given the size of its nitrogen emissions, which come mainly from livestock manure as well as crop fertilisers. “Industry [accounts for] only 2 per cent. Farmers feel we only target them but we are targeting other sectors too,” she said.

Dutch minister for nature Christianne van der Wal says the Netherlands has reached the limit of what nature can tolerate © Bart Maat/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

The government is offering to buy farmers out or pay those that operate near protected landscapes to move elsewhere. It has also suggested some could buy up land vacated by neighbouring farmers and so spread their livestock more thinly over a wider area. Some of the funding will come from a €24.3bn government pot to improve nature, which is awaiting state-aid approval from Brussels before it can be disbursed.

“[Farmers] can relocate, close the business or innovate. For example, halve your livestock and start other agriculture on your farm. We have financial support,” van der Waal said.

The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter by value after the US, although van der Wal points out that around a third of the total is imported and re-exported.

Many rural communities believe politicians in big cities such as The Hague and Amsterdam are damaging their economic prospects and wiping out a centuries-old way of life that they do not understand.

Last year’s protests produced a number of grassroots action groups and spurred support for insurgent populist parties.

The Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB) party is in third place ahead of provincial elections on March 15, according to polls. Its leader and sole MP Caroline van der Plas was a frequent guest on rightwing US TV shows last year as they enlisted Dutch farmers in their culture wars against environmental policies and perceived metropolitan elites.

Hank Vermeer, cofounder of the BBB, said it was winning voters from the centre-right Christian Democrats, a member of the governing coalition and traditionally seen as representing farmers’ interests, over the nitrogen issue.

“More and more people do not feel represented by politicians in The Hague,” he said. “It is about much more than farmers.”

A recent poll found 54 per cent of Dutch voters thought politicians neglected rural areas, and politicians’ approval rating was lower outside cities.

Vermeer, who co-owns a PR company, said the BBB wanted to abolish the nitrogen cap.

Success in next month’s elections could give the party considerable influence. The provincial governments elect senators to the upper house of the Dutch parliament, and polls suggest that populist forces such as the BBB and far-right Freedom Party could gain enough seats to be able to create a blocking majority in the Senate.

Other EU countries are facing a similar dilemma. Brussels this month started legal action against Belgium for breaching nitrogen limits.

“We are the first country to reach the limit of what nature can tolerate. We have to find a new balance with nature. For too long we have had more development than our nature can bear,” van der Wal said.

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