Nature & Nitrogen

Much less nitrogen and much more nature

The nitrogen crisis is an ecological crisis. It's about nitrogen reduction and above all, about much more space for nature.

Opinion article: by Raoul Beunen, Stefan Pasma and Sander Turnhout

The nitrogen crisis is an ecological crisis, in which, in addition to nitrogen reduction, pesticides and desiccation must be addressed and, above all, additional space is needed for nature.

The current nitrogen crisis is an ecological crisis. From the point of view of nature, nitrogen is a major environmental problem, but certainly not the only one: desiccation, fragmentation of nature and the use of pesticides also take their toll. In nature, everything is connected to everything. That’s why we have to solve the problems from nature’s perspective. If you do that, you see that – apart from reducing nitrogen – above all more space is needed for nature.

More nature means larger areas, more landscape unity and protecting more species. Larger areas in landscape logical units offer more space for natural cycles and processes and are therefore more robust and resistant to pressure factors and disturbance. And more species means that you can also focus on species that respond quickly to measures, allowing you to steer towards improvement rather than just a legally defined end goal.

Nature’s lower limit reached

In the Netherlands we have made nature extra vulnerable by constantly steering for the lower limit. In the United Nations Biodiversity Convention 2020, it was agreed that every country should designate at least 17 percent of land and inland waterways as protected nature. The European Union declared its Natura 2000 acreage and narrowly met the target at 18 percent. The Netherlands, on the basis of Natura 2000, only reached 15 percent. And that 15 percent is a flattering score, because only 9 percent of the land area is protected.

The percentage is higher because large inland waters such as the IJsselmeer have been added. The Natura 2000 network is therefore not a balanced reflection of biodiversity in the Netherlands. It therefore functions only moderately as an instrument for protecting the species of the Birds and Habitats Directives. In order to subsequently achieve the agreed 17 percent, the Netherlands added the National Nature Network (NNN). This brings the Netherlands to 26 percent. However, the NNN is much less well protected and, moreover, one-third of it consists of forests that primarily have a timber production function.

Organization of our own failures

You might get away with it on paper, but all those percentages of protected nature were agreed upon for a reason. They are well-founded estimates of what is needed for ecosystems to function. If you don’t give them the proper content, you will be organising your own failure. It is therefore not surprising that the Netherlands is at the bottom of the league in Europe when it comes to nature conservation. Not only do we have the highest nitrogen emissions, we also simply have too little protected nature.

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) has calculated that 150 thousand hectares of new nature areas are needed to provide sustainable protection for nature in the Netherlands. That is roughly 7 percent of the current agricultural area.

The call for more nature protection is also growing stronger internationally. In the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030, for example, the European Commission has agreed that 30 percent of land and sea area must be protected, of which 10 percent must be strictly protected.

Ending of the 6th great extinction

This sharpening of ambitions comes for a reason. Nature policy is intended to put an end to the great extinction we know from the 19th and 20th centuries, in which we lost much of our biodiversity. To the fact that we have also been unable in the last twenty years to comply with the so-called ‘deterioration ban’ of the Habitat Directive, we now owe the nitrogen crisis.

In 2027 a similar crisis awaits us from the Water Framework Directive. Besides tackling nitrogen, pesticides and desiccation, we also need more space for nature. The good news is that the Netherlands will become much more beautiful and healthy as a result. Who wouldn’t want that?

About the opinion-makers

Raoul Beunen, associate professor of environmental policy at the Open University.

Stefan Pasma, publicist and founder of website

Sander Turnhout, PhD in nature monitoring and works as a strategic advisor for Radboud Healthy Landscape and SoortenNL.

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