Should the people pay the price in the fight against climate change?
There has been a recent slew of protests across the Netherlands. One which has divided the European Union as to the correct course of action that will appease farmers and take seriously the climate issues the world is facing. Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, has tasked the Netherlands to halve the country’s nitrous oxide outputs among other greenhouse gases. This is no easy task and was sure to ruffle a few feathers whatever approach was taken. As of 2019, at 6.66 million tonnes of nitrous oxide per year, the Dutch agricultural sector was facing a mammoth task. It seems cruel to blame the Dutch farmers for being solely responsible for the high-levels of nitrous oxide and ammonia emissions present in the country. These issues are rarely the responsibility of one specific party, as such blame should be shared proportionately. As a result, extreme caution should be exercised before potentially endangering the livelihood of millions who rely on the Netherlands massive agricultural output.
The protests have received fluctuating support since they began in 2019, with many calling the attempts of the Dutch government an attack on the West’s fundamental human rights. Russel Brand claimed the emissions cut is part of the West’s Great Reset, an unproven conspiracy theory espoused by many on the far-right. It has been a rallying cry for many who favour populist political movements. There is no basis to these claims but these protests and the implications of the emissions reduction being enshrined in law raise questions around the working-class costs of the climate legislation. It is a question not easily ignored, especially when the movement has gained international sympathy towards the dangers posed to the farmers' livelihoods.
In 2019 when the highest court in the Netherlands ruled that the country was breaking EU laws by not taking steps to reduce their emissions. While the nitrous oxide emissions in the Netherlands are overwhelmingly coming from their agriculture sector, there are sectors in the country that seem to have gone unmentioned in the government's fight against climate change. The Dutch government’s policy making decisions seem to be based around a report that listed the top 100 emissions producers across the country. The report published by RIVM, The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment included producers like Tata Steel and some refineries owned by BP and Esso, as per both the Guardian and the Telegraaf.
However, on11th April, 2022, RIVM published an addendum to their original report. This publication asserted that there were discrepancies in their original reporting and some farmers had voiced displeasure at their inclusion in the list. RIVM acknowledged the error and extended apologies to the farmers involved. Alongside this, later in the year RIVM published an additional report that stated their original top 100 list was only commissioned after they received questions from the House of Representatives. Additionally, they stated that due to the errors in their original report, it should not be used as the basis of wholescale policy making decisions.
In light of such reports, is it fair that individuals have to pay the price for their contribution to the emissions levels? There is a lot of talk about the need to reduce our individual carbon footprint and questions around what we as individuals can do to help in the fight against climate change. With the inception and growing popularity of Extinction Rebellion and other like minded groups, should the fight come at the price of inconveniencing those who play a miniscule part in it? RIVM admits that their data publications “do not lend themselves to reporting on the specific emissions of at the level of individual farmers”. While broad sweeping legislation may be easy to fight climate change, there should be an understanding and willingness to foster cooperation between the government and the agriculture sector. Instead a spokesperson for the government has argued that farmers will “need to innovate to drastically reduce emissions, transition to a new kind of business, relocate or ‘voluntarily stop’.”
As the fight against climate change has received extensive populist support, so has the fight to not let these challenges affect individuals whose livelihoods are put at risk through the fighting. Reporting in the Guardian shows that there are deep emotional factors in play for the farmers fighting against these new rules. One farmer said, “no other sector has reduced nitrogen in the last 30 years, as we have. This is why there is lots of emotion and pain.” The pain felt here is justified, the Dutch agriculture sector has worked to lower their nitrogen emissions. Over the last 33 years the agricultural sector has lowered their nitrogen emissions by nearly 2 million tons, as per the data available up to 2019. The outrage is justified when it becomes clear that this sector has been committed to lowering their environmental output for nearly three decades. On top of this being handed an ultimatum that threatens your livelihood was sure to raise some hackles.
All in all, the fearmongering that comes with the inevitable fight against climate change is an important factor for environmentalists when it comes to influencing reform. Consequently, this fearmongering will alienate those who feel they have already committed plenty to the cause and argue they are being squeezed dry by politicians with a point to prove. While not necessarily a fundamental attack on your basic human rights, there is a valid question to be asked around whether the Dutch agriculture sector is a necessary evil. Mainly due to their influence and necessity not just nationwide but for a large majority of Europe too. A question we should be asking ourselves is should we be so quick to call for such drastic measures without exploring alternatives that benefit and integrate the agricultural sector instead of devolving it.
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