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Reactive nitrogen lockdown

22 February 2020 - Ecologism

When farmers bring their own scientists to a negotiation.

As already mentioned in an earlier blog The Netherlands is facing a reactive nitrogen crisis. It put the country in a active reactive nitrogen lock-down with building permits for large infrastructure projects revoked and something like a farmers revolt. How did this happen? As part of a European agreement called Natura 2000 141 locations in the country are designated ecologically protected areas and the government is obliged to look after them. That would not be a challenge but the biggest threat to these locations is an abundance of reactive nitrogen. Too much of it kills of for example sensitive heath and favors ordinary grasses. One thing is clear: the country is producing too much reactive nitrogen and emissions must be curbed. But who to blame? Builders, heavy industry and traffic create NOx and from agriculture ammonia is emitted. Welcome to an interesting numbers game.

If the government is to rescue the Nature 2000 area's it first needs to find out who emits what and how much of that what ends up in one of these 141 locations. Then it can either close down the identified operations or force them to clean up their act. The Dutch RIVM is a large government research institute (1700 employees) and some time ago they did the numbers: the biggest reactive nitrogen producer is agriculture (46%) followed by what crosses the border (32%) and then traffic (6%). Industry is a tiny 1%. Government acted accordingly by not invading out neighboring countries (read Rhine-Ruhr) to switch off pollutants there but instead singled out Dutch agriculture and to a smaller extent building. As a symbolic gesture the speed limit for automobiles nation-wide will be reduced from 130 to 100 kilometers per hour starting next month.

The RIVM verdict does not sit well with the farmers. They are facing tough measures and will have to invest heavily in their businesses in order to reduce emissions. A lot of them will be forced to shut them down completely. The ensuing farmers revolt and protests (one of them held in front of RIVM headquarters) may not have accomplished anything yet but this week the farmers struck back at the RIVM scientists by bringing their own scientists Link. Enter Geesje Rotgers (investigative reporter) and Richard Zijlstra (geo data analist) representing Mesdag-Zuivelfonds, a research institute and innovation platform or a lobby group depending who you ask. Their key complaint: the RIVM numbers game has flaws and farmers are singled out as the bad guys for the wrong reasons. Here is why. The figure of 46% concerns the reactive nitrogen emission for the entire landmass (Link) but the farmers argue that only the amount of reactive nitrogen ending up in Nature 2000 area's are relevant.

Before they could begin their own numbers variation they had to take RIVM to court for the release of emission data sets(Link) but this week geo data scientist Richard Zijlstra presented his results: he arrives at 25% for agriculture, 18% foreign, industry 6% and traffic is now 41%. The value for agriculture is much lower, one of the arguments is that ammonia emitted on a farm migrates over a distance of 100 meters at the most, that is often still within the boundary of the farm itself. This is in itself an interesting science question that this blog has attempted to tackle but but research appears to exist only on vertical atmospheric migration patterns but not on horizontal patterns. The figure for traffic is much higher, Mesdag-Zuivelfonds notes that a lot of busy highways and shipping cuts right through Natura 2000 areas. Industry is also higher, Mesdag-Zuivelfonds questions the quality of the RIVM data because it relies on self-reporting of emissions by the industrial companies and smaller companies are exempt from reporting anyway.

The RIVM response was threefold. Yes, they do have deposition data specifically for each Nature 2000 area which do not deviate in a significant way from the national data. The Mesdag-Zuivelfonds data analyst has been using a data set that lacked proper resolution and the calculations included protected lakes that do not have a reactive nitrogen problem.

After a week of publicity the media have solidly sided with RIVM. It does not help that Mesdag-Zuivelfonds is viewed as a lobby group and not a innovation platform. The data were not presented as a single proper report, we have a press release, a video, a powerpoint and a whopping 600 MB pdf that cannot be downloaded because it cannot be scanned for viruses. So much for communication skills.

On the other hand the RIVM can complain Mesdag-Zuivelfonds used the wrong data set but it is the data set they have handed over in the first place. A high-resolution data set is not going to help Mesdag-Zuivelfond anyway because it will lack the serious computing power typically available only to large institutions such as RIVM. The RIVM remark that reactive nitrogen deposited in a lake is harmless may very well trigger a new scientific debate.

Update 03 March: Mesdag and RIVM have discussed matters. Mesdag will start new calculations, RIVM will provide additional datasets if required. Mesdag has acknowledged it made errors in their calculations, RIVM has acknowledged it made a mistake in their calculations. Agriculture contribution now 41% from 46%. The power of peer review! (nu.nl)

Update 05 March: an official committee of scientists have advised the government that the methodology used by RIVM to track reactive nitrogen can be trusted. (volkskrant). RIVM should however according to the committee seriously increase the number of physical measuring stations around the country. This has always been a key point of contention with the farmers who argue that the simulation models do not accurately reflect data collected in the field. Big win for the farmers there. The newspaper The Volkskrant notes that it does not help that the chairman of the committee has past employment with RIVM. On the other hand the committee included a known RIVM critic. The national media declared the RIVM the winner.

Update 05 March: The Mesdag geoneer Zijlstra on his Twitter account provided a link to the OPS source code at github. Not sure if it went open-source just today. Interestingly this software has been around since 1989 and a lot of national policy making depends on it. Our geoneer is delving into the code as we speak.