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Dutch plan to cut nitrogen emissions gets EU green light


Dutch government plans to drastically reduce nitrogen pollution emissions have cleared a major hurdle

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Dutch government plans to drastically reduce nitrogen pollution emissions cleared a major hurdle on Tuesday when the European Union executive gave the go-ahead to farm buy-back programs worth nearly 1 .5 billion euros ($1.65 billion).

Plans to reduce nitrogen deposition – mainly by livestock – in EU-designated vulnerable nature areas have sparked heated debate and widespread protests from angry farmers in this small country which is a major producer and exporter of agricultural products. Dutch agricultural exports amounted to 122.3 billion euros last year, according to the national statistics office.

The Dutch ruling coalition wants to reduce emissions of pollutants, mainly nitrogen oxide and ammonia, by 50% nationwide by 2030. It was not immediately clear how much of this target could be achieved using EU-approved funds.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, nitrogen pollution aggravates climate change and can harm biodiversity.

A key part of the Dutch strategy is to buy out and stop work on farms responsible for large-scale nitrogen emissions. However, this required confirmation from the European Commission that the takeovers do not constitute state aid prohibited by EU rules.

Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president in charge of competition policy, said in a statement that the two approved regimes would pave the way for the “voluntary closure” of farms responsible for large nitrogen emissions.

“The programs will improve environmental conditions in these areas and promote more sustainable and environmentally friendly production in the livestock sector, without unduly distorting competition,” she said.

The Dutch government did not react immediately. The responsible minister is expected to inform lawmakers of the decision later on Tuesday.

A pro-agriculture political party won Dutch provincial elections in March, underscoring the extent of discontent among farmers and other sections of society that has been fueled by nitrogen reduction plans. The Dutch central government has tasked the provincial legislatures with formulating and implementing specific proposals to reduce nitrogen emissions.

Last year, farmers staged several large demonstrations, blocking highways and supermarket warehouses to protest reforms they portray as an existential threat to their way of life.

The protests have also spread to neighboring Belgium, where hundreds of farmers drove their tractors through Brussels city center last month to protest plans to cut nitrogen pollution.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.