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The remarkable case of the nitrogen crisis

What happened?

The lingering nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands is forcing the government to take unpopular and costly measures to reduce nitrogen emissions across the economy. Even though it is not surprising that sustainability has taken center stage in politics, the intriguing aspect is that the wish for sustainable action stems almost exclusively from the rationale of preserving natural habitats and biodiversity. Instead of anthropocentric issues such as human health or green economic growth, this crisis revolves around the intrinsic value of nature.

What does this mean?

As we noted before, sustainable action can be inspired by different rationales. These rationales include concerns over future profitability of a sector (e.g. fishermen deciding to preserve fish stocks), the protection of human health and safety (e.g. in the case of air pollution or climate change), green economic growth (e.g. renewable energy technology) or the desire for a meaningful lifestyle (e.g. sustainable consumption). Each of these rationales somehow ties in with the interests of humankind (e.g. economic growth or feelings of self-worth) and sustainable action can thus be “justified” with relative ease. By contrast, the nitrogen issue appeals to a different kind of rationale, of protecting nature because it has intrinsic value, which is not directly related to human interests (other than upholding the rule of law).

What’s next?

This intrinsic value of nature does not usually garner a lot of political support and this crisis is really an exception to the rule (i.e. it is the result of somewhat naïve policy-making in the past). Moreover, this crisis, and the measures that are introduced, may chip away at support for sustainability in general. That is not to say that the intrinsic value of nature should be negated, but rather that other rationales for sustainable action are politically more powerful and can yield (roughly) the same outcomes for our environment.