Ever since 1992, The EU Birds and Habitats Directive protects animals, plants and rare habitat types. The directive is aimed at maintaining and protecting the biodiversity in Europe. Biodiversity ensures fresh water, clean air, good soil and the pollination of crops. It counteracts climate change and reduces natural disasters. The protection of nature cannot be captured within land borders. It is therefore a fundamental cross-country issue. In the Netherlands, the introduction of the directive resulted in the establishing of more than 160 protected areas. The Netherlands is a densely populated country, which causes an excess of nitrogen in the air. Due to this nitrogen surplus, flowers, plants, and therefore animals, disappear. In 2015 a programmatic approach, named Programma Aanpak Stikstof (“Tackling Nitrogen Programme”) was introduced to protect nature, alongside economic development. Within this programme, local governments located closely to protected areas could build houses, roads and industrial estates, after which the national government would compensate the excess of nitrogen emissions with sustainable policies. However, in May 2019 the Council of State argued that this practice is not allowed. From this moment onwards, the national government, provinces, local governments, entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations have been working together to find a solution.
What do the new solutions look like?
Local governments describe the new approach as a customized approach per region in the Netherlands. Civil servants said they agree with the ruling of the Council of State; this has forced them to now make real choices. The new approach has to integrate different aspects of area-oriented social challenges in cooperation with other municipalities and aimed at a sustainable future.
While reviewing the current policy in the Netherlands, local governments work on an integrated solution, combining different aspects for a future-proof Netherlands. Different sectors must work together for the final aim of zero pollution. Topics like electricity, industry, mobility, environment, agriculture and land use are cross-sectoral, because policies taken on these topics can affect other sectors at the same time. Therefore, these topics cannot be approached separately. In line with this, a national climate agreement was approved by all stakeholders and the different spheres of government in 2019. In this agreement governments, private sector, knowledge institutions and civil society worked together to find a solution which combines all aspects of the sustainable transition of the Netherlands. All sectors came together to share knowledge and innovative practices, resulting in a pragmatic solution.
The 2015 Programma Aanpak Stikstof consisted of a general approach for the whole country. However, it turned out once again that there are major differences between areas in the Netherlands and in the level of nitrogen. Therefore, different regions and municipalities need different approaches. Within the region, the province collaborates with local governments to find answers to protect the living environment for their citizens. Area-specific solutions can be found or created locally by including stakeholders, organisations, private parties and citizens and are based on the principles of cooperation and consensus. Local governments come up with local solutions based on the interests of its citizens and local expertise. This results in a customized approach with broad support of the relevant parties who know what is best for their region. Moreover, local governments work together with other local governments to learn from each other and coordinate their approaches.
The past few years, administrative courts played an important role in shaping the policy on nature and climate. Lawsuits filed by interest groups have opened the eyes of local governments. The Council of State decided both in the Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands case, as well as in the Dutch nitrogen case that European laws have to be enforced more strictly. These judgements raised awareness and resulted in new objectives for the upcoming years. The restoration and conservation of the protected areas goes hand in hand with achieving the goals of the Dutch Climate agreement, i.e. 49% less emissions in 2030 and a circular economy. In practice, local governments do not completely overturn their policy. Overall, they try to continue based on how they have been doing things in recent years, but with new underlying principles and shifted focus.
Local governments can no longer ignore EU policies, just as the EU cannot operate without local government to successfully implement its policies and regulations” (VNG, 2017).
Interaction and cooperation between the EU and European local governments
The European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen started in 2019 and immediately launched the European Green Deal as their biggest new growth strategy. The main goal of this Green Deal is to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The specific objectives include: zero pollution, smarter transport, affordable energy and high-quality food. This research shows that to combat the challenges of climate and environment, all Member States, all regions and all local governments have to cooperate. Local governments are crucial actors for the implementation of the EU’s climate policies, because of their large executing role. Furthermore, local governments have local expertise, operate closely to their citizens and can provide for a customized approach for their area. It is, therefore, of great importance to include local governments in (EU) policymaking, as well as to focus on the crucial role they have in the battle against emissions.