Published on 13 February 2024

A solution to the nitrogen problem?

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy (EZK) commissioned a study to gain an understanding of the coherence of the energy transition in industry and its effects on nitrogen emission reductions. Together with the firm De essentie, Witteveen+Bos produced a comprehensive report in late 2022, in the first phase of this study. This report considers the positive effects of the energy transition and the resulting reduction of nitrogen emissions by major industries in the Netherlands. The refined follow-up report, from the second phase, was sent to the House of Representatives on 9 February 2024.

The study provides an outline quantitative insight into the potential of nitrogen reductions in industry. It also provides insight into the temporary negative impacts arising from the construction of the projects necessary for the energy transition in industry. After all, the construction of these energy projects will lead to significant but temporary increases in nitrogen emissions.

On behalf of Witteveen+Bos, environmental advisers Benno Jimmink and Erik Logemann, as well as others, worked on this study. Erik: ‘The energy transition will reduce not only reduce CO2 emissions, but also nitrogen emissions. This is because the switch from fossil fuels to solar and wind energy avoids nitrogen emissions in industry. Making industry more sustainable can thus help reduce nitrogen deposition in the Netherlands.’

‘The nitrogen problem is probably like cleaning up: it has to get worse for a while before it gets better. And that makes it complicated. In May 2019, the Council of State drew a line under the Integrated Approach to Nitrogen (PAS) scheme, preventing nitrogen deposition from being offset against uncertain reduction measures in the future. At a later stage, the construction exemption was abolished, which meant that temporary nitrogen emissions in construction phases of structures could also be relevant for issuing permits. These rulings led to construction projects being largely put on hold. And this at a time that there is a lot to do when it comes to the energy transition. The main question, of course, is: how do we get out of this impasse?’

During an intensive collaboration, which from exploratory research went in increasing depth – helped by, among other things, data from RIVM, TenneT, Gasunie and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy – the conclusion emerged with increasing clarity. Benno: ‘With all the transition measures in the pipeline and the fossil energy saved in the process, there are huge nitrogen gains to be made. The emissions necessary for the transition are dwarfed by the future reduction. That is obviously a great perspective, and it clearly shows the way forward. There is, however, a bump in the road: the abolishment of the construction exemption also means that many projects aimed at the transition cannot yet be implemented, since no permits are issued. Progress is stalling, although the energy transition makes a huge contribution to solving the nitrogen problem. This is actually a legal puzzle that the Ministries of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy and Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality are wrestling with. This will no doubt be continued.’

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