Reaching the nitrogen targets cheaper: it is possible, but is it desirable?

1. What are these pieces?

More than 300 pages of calculations, notes and models from the Ministry of Finance provide a concrete insight into the consequences of the government’s nitrogen policy. The documents show for the first time how many farmers will be affected, according to officials from this ministry.

It has been agreed in the coalition agreement that by 2030, 74 percent of all nature reserves in the Netherlands will be so healthy that the so-called critical deposition value, which indicates nitrogen damage, will no longer be exceeded. To this end, the government requires agriculture to emit 39 kilotons of less nitrogen. Farmers across the country must contribute to this.

This means that according to the Ministry of Finance’s calculations, approximately 11,000 livestock farmers will have to stop. Another 17,000 livestock farms are to be scaled down. It is more than necessary, the officials say: If this is implemented, the critical deposit value in 82 percent of the nature reserves will no longer be exceeded. That is more than the required 74 percent.

In addition, the € 24.3 billion reserved by the government is probably not enough to make this possible. According to officials, the total cost of the current policy will be about 10 billion higher. The nitrogen targets can also be achieved in a cheaper and more efficient way, they believe.

2. How can these nitrogen targets be achieved in a cheaper way?

The Cabinet has decided that everyone should feel the pain. This means that even livestock farmers who do not contribute much to the nitrogen problem, for example because they grow far from nature reserves, must make a (small) contribution.

However, the Ministry of Finance outlines, the more policy focuses on buying out so-called ‘peak taxers’, such as large livestock farms close to nature reserves, the fewer farmers will eventually be affected by the policy.

In the cheapest and most efficient scenario, 5,300 farmers had to be bought out. Other companies do not have to shrink. It requires a ‘very targeted’ policy, the officials write, where farmers in, for example, Gelderse Vallei have to stop almost all of them, and other goals, for example in the field of climate and water quality, have not been taken into account.

Other sectors must also make a significant contribution; they must emit half of the nitrogen. This choice would only cost 10 billion, the officials write, although they later indicate that ‘legal and implementation aspects’ could make the costs higher.

In another scenario, where in the end only 30 kilotons of nitrogen will have to be saved, more than 11,000 farmers will have to stop like now, but only 200 livestock farmers will have to reduce their farms. Here, too, greater emphasis will be placed on (mandatory) purchase of peak loaders in the vicinity of nature reserves.

Will these calculations change policy?

Probably not. The documents are from before the cabinet plan that caused so much controversy, with the controversial area map. Ultimately, finance officials advise their minister to agree to the proposed policy of aiming for 39 kilotons less nitrogen emissions, which affects the largest number of companies and is also the most expensive.

Officials are willing to accept that this can do more than necessary, because of the uncertainty of the models, and because the reverse is even less desirable: that the task must ultimately be upgraded and therefore more done. previously thought.

However, it has been agreed that by the autumn it will be investigated whether there is a real need for 39 kilotons less emissions, or whether that emission target can be lowered. Thereafter, the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency will provide the annual climate and energy outlook, which will also clarify how much nitrogen is saved with (climate) policies already in place.

The concrete objectives for other sectors, such as aviation and traffic, also follow.

Finance officials warn that it is important to keep track of costs. To this end, the central government must keep its finger on the pulse of the provinces, which ultimately make plans to reduce nitrogen emissions.

4. Why are these documents important anyway?

There are many different ways to meet the nitrogen targets. Ultimately, only one goal is sacred to the Department of Agriculture: That 74 percent of nature is improved to such an extent by 2030 that the critical landfill value is no longer exceeded.

It is up to the politicians in the end to choose which way is the best: is it by spreading the pain as much as possible (which will increase the cost and more farmers will feel the policy), or is it by intervening very hard with a more limited number of farmers, whereby some areas in the Netherlands are unlikely to have any farmers left? And how much should other sectors contribute?

It can be important for members of parliament to have these underlying calculations because they can make better informed choices in the back of their minds. That is what makes these pieces relevant. Until now, the Ministry of Agriculture will not disclose how many farms will be affected by the cabinet plans.

Even now, it is not yet certain whether 11,000 companies will actually have to close and downsize another 17,000. It will ultimately depend on the plans that the provinces make. But it gives an idea of ​​the huge task that awaits.

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