Earlier I talked about the Scientific Climate Council, a discussion group appointed by climate minister Jetten that should tell the Netherlands how the energy transition should proceed here. Their message was predictable: things have to go even faster. It would have been surprising if, after careful consideration, these people whom Jetten had asked had stated that his ambitions in this area could be slowed down a notch.
At about the same time, Minister of Nature and Nitrogen Christianne van der Wal appointed her own discussion group: the Ecological Authority. It now comes with an equally predictable message: nature is doing badly, action must be taken now for recovery.
What was this week about? A Nature Objective Analysis (NDA) must be made for each nitrogen-sensitive Natura 2000 area, a detailed report on the ‘conservation status’ (the official legal term) of nature in that area, and especially: whether it has improved since the designation of the area. if Natura 2000 has deteriorated or improved (usually around the turn of the century). And based on that, a plan of action.
This is done by local nature managers. There are guidelines for this, but it is inevitable that they will all do it in their own way. The Ecological Authority looks at all those NDAs together and makes a sort of assessment peer review on.
In itself very sensible, and their assessment is certainly not lenient: the majority of those NDAs are of substandard quality. The biggest problem is that a lot of data is missing, with the most serious shortcoming being that the condition of the area at the time of its designation as Natura 2000 is often not known, or insufficiently known. If you cannot compare the condition now with the condition then, you do not know whether there has been deterioration. And that is decisive in European legislation: Natura 2000 areas may not deteriorate. If deterioration has not been demonstrated, strictly speaking, as a nature manager you do not have to do anything.
The fact that NDAs are flawed in terms of data is nothing new, see this column from May 2023. But even in the absence of relevant data, you can still go in any direction, according to the Ecological Authority. This has been selected in detail by the editors of one example, Aamsveen in Overijssel Agrio.
Data on the condition of this piece of ‘recovering raised bog’ is also lacking for the Aamsveen when it was designated as a Natura 2000 area in 2004. But according to the Ecological Authority, it is now in worse condition than the intended purpose when the raised bog has been fully restored, so it must be have deteriorated since 2004, or at least this cannot be ruled out.
Note: this concerns 0.09 hectares of recovering raised peat. That’s like the penalty area of a football field. And only to allow this piece of land to flourish, the very low KWD (critical deposition value, the maximum nitrogen load) of recovering raised peat applies, and virtually nothing can be done within 25 kilometers of the area due to exceeding the threshold value for nitrogen: no housing construction, no new power lines, no events, and barbecuing in your backyard is actually not possible.
The perfidious precautionary principle
Aamsveen is not an incident, it is exemplary of how the Ecological Authority assesses all doubtful cases: reversal of the burden of proof. ‘Many social groups question the reliability of nature data and the concreteness of goals. However, due to the applicable precautionary principle, doubt or uncertainty will not provide a solution. On the contrary. In the event of indications that nature is not doing well (for example, if the critical deposition value for nitrogen is exceeded) and in the absence of nature data that can refute these indications, the initiator and permit issuer have a legally stricter obligation to provide reasons.’
Here we see the perfidious precautionary principle reappearing, the clincher unfortunately embraced by the Council of State, with which you, as an environmental activist, also get your way if you have no data and no arguments. Because then ‘deterioration cannot be ruled out’.
And of course the Ecological Authority also joins the ranks of agencies, politicians and ecologists who want to convince us that there is no choice: that the Netherlands is on lockdown because of the sorry state of our nature. While the Netherlands is really locked down by self-created, restrictive nitrogen rules that no other EU country applies.
This must not be compromised; it is not even a point of discussion for the Ecological Authority. According to them, the only way out is to restore nature according to the current obsessive-neurotic system. ‘This also creates the much-needed perspective. Perspective on restoring good environmental quality, which not only contributes to nature, but also to human health.’
Bad for the health
This brings us to the worst piece of disinformation about the nitrogen problem in the Netherlands: that it is a public health problem. People understandably have a lot of (tax) money left over for the health of their fellow human beings, but considerably less for protected nature. The sector knows this too. So the nitrogen problem must be sold as a threat to our health.
Having to wait years longer for a house because construction emits too much nitrogen according to current regulations, can be explained to the citizen if it means saving human lives or giving sick children a better life, but not because a patch of raised peat is somewhere in there. Overijssel the size of a penalty area must ‘recover’. So the suggestion is always made that if raised peat suffers from too much nitrogen deposition, that nitrogen also poisons people.
But certainly the nitrogen emissions associated with the construction of a residential area are so small that they have a completely negligible impact on public health.
Stop reversing the burden of proof
There are European rules for air quality with standards for NH3, NOx and particulate matter. If these – very strict – standards are exceeded, you can have a meaningful discussion about the influence of nitrogen on public health. But the Netherlands more than meets those European standards for air quality. It is our own, uniquely Dutch standards for nitrogen deposition in Natura 2000 areas that are currently paralyzing and splitting society to the core.
Here lies a clear task for the new Minister of Agriculture (there will probably not be a new minister for nitrogen): demand from the Ecological Authority that ‘deterioration’ of Natura 2000 areas is substantiated with data, not with a reversal of the burden of proof.
Science journalist Arnout Jaspers wrote The Nitrogen Trap, the book that analyzes how the Netherlands fell into the hands of activist ecologists and thus became the only country in the world to cause itself a ‘nitrogen crisis’. He is now preparing a book about ‘the Dutch energy transition’.
Wynia’s Weekis celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. Wynia’s Week is made possible by the voluntarily paid subscriptions of readers, viewers and listeners. Are you already participating – also in 2024?