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Protesting The Non-Crisis Nitrogen ‘Crisis’ In The Netherlands

By William M. Briggs

On the Fourth of July, a group of angry Dutch farmers and fishermen, presumably dressed as colorful Frisians, and in the grip of angry exuberance, burnt bales of hay on roads, and blocked up highways with tractors and farm equipment, shutting down traffic throughout the country. Ports and borders were stopped up.

As fun as that was, it doesn’t beat this:


This was all in protest of the government’s declaration that nitrogen is a “crisis“, and so threatening to confiscate farms to “solve” the “crisis.” Prediction: Later, it will be said to be a coincidence when the government eventually disposes of the confiscated farms by selling them to rich people.

What makes it all funny is that—sit down for this—there is no nitrogen “crisis” in the Netherlands.

“Briggs, how do you know there is no nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands, when Experts there have declared that one exists?”

Thank you for that question. Here’s how.

1. Nitrogen Critical Loads: Critical Reflections on Past Experiments, Ecological Endpoints, and Uncertainties, a peer-reviewed review paper by (chemist) Jaap Hanekamp and Yours Truly.


Nitrogen Critical Loads (NCL), as purported ecological dose-response outcomes for nitrogen deposition from anthropogenic sources, play a central role in environmental policies around the world. In the Netherlands, these NCL are used to assess, via calculations using the model AERIUS, to what extent NCL are exceeded for different habitats as a result of different sources such as industry, agriculture, traffic. NCL are, however, not well defined, and are subject to hitherto unrecognized forms of uncertainty. We will address this with reference to a number of key studies that forms the basis for several NCL. We will subsequently propose amendments that could be applicable to future nitrogen studies and their enhanced relevancy in decision making.

Nitrogen “critical” loads are one of the key metrics the government and Experts use to declare a “crisis.”

Here’s a an executive summary letter on that paper (same journal; full pdf).

And here’s a popular article on that paper.

2. The model AERIUS/OPS model, mentioned above, and another metric use to declare a “crisis”, is not good. Here’s one representative picture from a new paper we are working on which assess that model (the picture is not ours, but from an experiment to test the model):

Y-axis are predictions of SF6, and the X-axis are the observations, at some distance from a power plant. That look like a good prediction to you?

To me neither.

3. National land grabbing or the anti-politics of nitrogen policy. (This is from Hanekamp’s blog, written in an obscure language that no one of my acquaintance will admit to knowing, so what you see is a machine translation.)

As part of the “crisis”, areas designated as “sensitive” to nitrogen must be protected by being surrounded by naturea areas. “A tiny sliver of 3.84 hectares near the Frisian coast, H7140A (vibrated peat), has been designated as nitrogen-sensitive…Despite the small surface area of this habitat, a protection strip of no less than 28,000 hectares in total is deemed necessary by ministers” to form this protection zone.

Would you call this overkill? Or even overdreven?

So would I.

4. Another (brief) review paper by the same Definitive Duo: Outlining A New Method To Quantify Uncertainty In Nitrogen Critical Loads.


We highlight deficiencies and improvements of a nitrogen critical load model. An original model using logistic regression augmented observations with fictitious data. We replace that with actual data, and show how to incorporate uncertainty in nitrogen measurement into the modeling process. In the end, however, we show a basic logistic regression model has irremovable deficiencies, giving positive probability of harmful effects of nitrogen even when no nitrogen is present.

That last line is amazing, ain’t it?

5. Another peer-reviewed beauty: A volatile discourse – reviewing aspects of ammonia emissions, models and atmospheric concentrations in The Netherlands. (Journal link.)

From the Abstract:

In the Netherlands, there is a vigorous debate on ammonia emissions…We show that uncertainty in published results is substantial. This uncertainty is under- or even unreported, and as a result, data in national emission inventories are overconfident by a wide margin. Next, we demonstrate that the statistical handling of data on atmospheric ammonia concentrations to produce national yearly atmospheric averages is oversimplified and consequently atmospheric concentrations are substantially overestimated. Finally, we show that the much-discussed ‘ammonia gap’ – either the discrepancy between calculated and measured atmospheric ammonia concentrations or the difference observed between estimated NH3 emission levels and those indicated by atmospheric measurements – is an expression of the widespread overconfidence placed in atmospheric modelling.

Over-certainty abounds. And is embraced by people who love to yell “Crisis!”

6. Another paper: Uncertainty in the MAN Data Calibration & Trend Estimates.

Abstract quote: “We investigate trend identification in the LML and MAN atmospheric ammonia data. The signals are mixed in the LML data, with just as many positive, negative, and no trends found. The start date for trend identification is crucial, with the trends claimed changing sign and significance depending on the start date.”

These stations measure ammonia (one of the forms of nitrogen in the “crisis”) in the Netherlands.

7+ Response to van Pul, van Zanten and Wichink Kruit, and Comment on Goedhart and Huijsmans (2017)

That’s enough, but we have others, and more to come, too. Soon.

Buy my new book and learn to argue against the regimeEverything You Believe Is Wrong.