News broke on Thursday that the Dutch government is planning to cut the speed limits on the nation’s main roads from 130km/h to 100km/h (from 81mph to 62mph in British terms) to address the country’s “ongoing nitrogen pollution crisis”. This will give it the slowest roads of any western European country, excluding microstates.
“What crisis?” is probably the common reaction to this story. It turns out that, since May this year, the Netherlands has been “forced” to halt road, airport, renewable energy and housing construction projects because of the fact that the country’s nitrogen oxide emissions are over EU regulatory limits. Last month Dutch farmers caused traffic chaos with a roaming tractor protest over the impact that measures to bring nitrogen oxide emissions under control might have on the agriculture industry.
Despite the word ‘crisis’ being dropped into virtually every news story on this issue, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of an actual crisis beyond the failure to comply with EU targets, which is apparently only now an issue after several years of exceeding them. The Netherlands is one of Europe’s cleanest, safest and healthiest countries. It is not wrapped in smog, suffering a health epidemic or experiencing acid rain, the environmental issues typically associated with series nitrogen oxide pollution. Rather, the failure to comply with targets comes largely from the population density of the relatively small country, with urban and agricultural land uses dominating virtually all the available land.
The Netherlands’ nitrogen oxide emissions need to be cut by more than 50% according to Wageningen Environmental Research, due to the fact that nitrogen pollution is coming into the Netherlands from neighbouring countries in addition to its own output. The Netherlands, with its relatively small land area, is being made to pick up the slack of larger countries with considerably more open space. This seems somewhat at odds with the principle of European unity, where one would expect these targets to be balanced out across member states.
As the farmers’ protest highlighted, continued stoppages of construction projects and restraining of agriculture will undoubtedly cost jobs before long. Instead of this, or at least instead of adding to it, the Dutch government now plans to knock 30km/h (19mph) off the country’s speed limit.
Although the Netherlands’ small size is a pertinent point when considering its pollution output, it isn’t so small as to make this change in road speeds negligible. The northern and southern cities of Groningen and Maastricht are 337km (209 miles) apart, a more than three hour journey in good traffic conditions. Smaller rural communities and northern coastal towns are even further from major centres. The speed limit cut will add at least half an hour to north-south journeys, potentially more if the reduced vehicle throughput adds to congestion on busier stretches of road.
Ultimately, Dutch motorists, along with the country’s housing, transport and agricultural industries and the people who depend on them for jobs and services, are being made to pay for a largely nonexistent issue that’s not of their making. Reducing nitrogen emissions can be a good goal to improve air quality, but the Netherlands is not by any means experiencing an air pollution crisis and this kind of language is being used to justify the strangling of a country’s infrastructure in the name of EU targets.
As is often the case where EU regulation is concerned, individual people are being punished for what is in this case a geopolitical issue stemming from the geography of the Netherlands and inflexible EU policy-making. It’s time to stop this kind of bureaucratic obsession with targets and start putting the needs of real people on the ground, the people the EU and its member states’ governments are there to serve, first and foremost.