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Sound and independent information
on the environment


Country profile (Netherlands)

What distinguishes the country?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011
Key message

Cooperation, integration and decentralisation characterise the governance of environmental protection in the Netherlands

 Until October 2010, environmental policy in the Netherlands was developed and implemented by the Ministry of Housing, Spatial planning and the Environment (VROM), and more specifically by the Directorate-General Environmental. VROM’s mission was to establish favourable conditions for pleasant living, working, recreation and transportation within the Netherlands. To achieve its mission, the Ministry developed regulations and stimulated the population, actively seeking involvement of citizens and business representatives in establishing rules and regulations (see also: ). In October 2010, DG Environment and the Ministry of Transport and Water Management merged into the new Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment.

The Dutch Ministry for the environment closely cooperates with international governments and administrations at regional and municipal levels. The Dutch Government decides on national issues. Provincial and municipal councils have their own decision-making power at regional and local levels. National policy naturally restricts the powers of these local administrations. The principle, however, is to keep decision-making powers as close as possible to the local level, promoting participative democracy. Large parts of national environmental policy have been decentralised. This means, for instance, that provincial councils are responsible for the execution of national policies on waste, groundwater management, and for providing environmental permits for large companies. District water boards are responsible for wastewater treatment and chemical and ecological water quality. Municipal councils have been made responsible for national policies on public safety, noise, odour, and local air quality (see also: ).

VROM also seeks integration of environmental regulations into policies and regulations of other ministries, such as those of the Ministry of Economic Affairs (innovation policy, energy conservation, renewable energy); the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (policies on manure, agro-chemicals, groundwater, nature conservation); and the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management (vehicle emission standards, aviation, flood protection).

Enforcement of environmental rules and regulations has largely been allocated to the municipalities. The VROM Inspectorate supervises these municipalities and additionally enforces legislation under the direct competence of the Environment Minister (see also ).

Several advisory councils support the development and evaluation of environmental policies. The VROM Council (VROM-raad) advises on matters concerning the legitimacy and social acceptance of environmental (and other) policies. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving) evaluates the effectiveness of environmental policies and provides scientific information on policy options (see also: ).

Environmental pressure per square kilometre is high in the Netherlands

In comparison with other European countries, environmental pressure in the Netherlands is high. This is not surprising, given the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the country. It has a high population density with a large degree of urbanisation, a large share of heavy and energy-intensive industry, and is a major exporter of agricultural and other products. The Dutch economy is very connected to those of other countries. In addition, the Netherlands is located in a low-lying river delta, which also created environmental pressure. Moreover, the country plays an important role in transporting and distributing goods within Europe. Altogether, it can be said that the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated European countries when expressed in number of inhabitants, with the largest numbers of livestock, and the most industry and cars per square kilometre (Table 1). These are the main explanations of the fact that this country’s environmental pressure per square kilometre is high (PBL, 2008)

Table 1. Inhabitants, livestock and cars per square kilometre for selected EU member states. The Netherlands have the highest density of inhabitants, livestock and cars in the EU.


Inhabitants/km2 (2005)

Cattle/km2 (2005)

Cars/km2 (2006)

















United Kingdom
















Sources: FAO and Eurostat


The Netherlands ranks better, in terms of environmental pressure

When environmental pressure is expressed per capita, or in relation to gross domestic product (GDP), the Netherlands ranks better than when this is related to surface area (see Table 2). This applies, for example, to acidification: only a few countries in the EU have lower acid emissions per capita. Greenhouse gas emissions per inhabitant are slightly higher than the EU average.

Table 2. Environmental pressure per capita for selected EU countries.
Compared to the EU average, environmental pressure per capita in the Netherlands (2005), is lower for acidification and higher for climate.


(g acid eq. per capita)

Climate (tonnes CO2 eq. per capita)













United Kingdom












Sources: EEA and Eurostat

Although the Netherlands applies more environmental measures, on average, than other EU countries, it nevertheless achieves a lower environmental quality

Since the environmental pressure per square kilometre is high, the Netherlands takes more environmental measures, on average, than other EU countries. This applies to cogeneration (power stations), use of advanced waste-water treatment technology, and of flue gas cleaning systems in industry (see Figure 1). Nevertheless, the air quality in the Dutch cities is worse than in many other major cities in Europe, and its country-average air quality is also below the EU average (PBL, 2008). In the Netherlands the health risks from air pollution are amongst the highest of Europe (TFIAM, CIAM, 2007).

Figure 1. Although the emission factor in the Netherlands is low the air pollution is still above the EU average (PBL, 2008)


Figure 1. Although the emission factor in the Netherlands is low the air pollution is still above the EU average (PBL, 2008)

With respect to the protection of nature, all Natura 2000 areas within the Netherlands are interconnected. Approximately 30 % of natural areas are protected against excessive nitrogen deposition, which is similar to the average protection rate within the EU (Hettelingh et al, 2008).

In 2010, over 70 % of Dutch nature areas will be at risk of acidification. This is significantly higher than the 11 % for the other EU countries. For the Netherlands, it is relatively expensive to meet EU obligations, as they have to take more measures to reduce pollution, generally, than other EU countries.



What have been the major societal developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

What have been the major societal developments since 1980 compared with the period 1950-1980

Income growth has been higher than population growth

In general, developments within the Netherlands happen gradually (see Figure 2). GDP growth increased more than the population itself, thus, per-capita income also increased. Noticeable is the sharp decrease in the average number of persons per household. Currently, this is 2.3, which is half of what it was fifty years ago. The economic growth has also led to a large increase in traffic, which was partly caused by an increase in the number of people employed (the Netherlands can be characterised as having a '1. 5 breadwinner model'). In addition, there also has been a significant increase in the recreational use of vehicles. The increased traffic, in turn, has led to an increase in traffic jams.

Because of energy efficiency improvements, the increase in energy use is lower than the growth in GDP.

Figure 2. Socio-economic developments in the Netherlands since 1990 (PBL, 2008)

Figure 2. Socio-economic developments in the Netherlands since 1990 (PBL, 2008)

Environmental policies become more and more integrated and international

In the 1970s, environmental policy in the Netherlands – as in many other western countries – was more or less nationally aimed. In the late 1980s, the Netherlands had become a leader in the field of environmental policy. A clean environment was seen as a prerequisite for a healthy economy; a clean economy was seen as an efficient economy. Later on, a shift took place from the use of end-of-pipe technologies to an integrated approach where various environmental issues were solved in combination. Other directorates also took environmental considerations into account in their policies. The 1988 publication of the first environmental outlook ‘Concerns for Tomorrow’ by RIVM can be regarded as an important occasion. The Dutch Government was preparing its First National Environmental Policy Plan (NMP1), in which the complexity and interdependence of environmental issues were recognised, as well as their occurrence at various geographical scales. Environmental policy and socio-economic policy were considered equally important. Because of the ongoing globalisation since the early 1990s, more emphasis was put on the importance of the competitiveness of the Dutch economy, and on the notion that a stringent environmental policy might lead to relocation of labour to other countries. This increased the awareness that environmental policy should be approached internationally. In the 1990s, concepts such as eco-efficiency and decoupling came into use. Later on, it was recognised that the existing policy was inadequate, and that system innovation was needed. This called for innovation in policy and new institutions.

What are the main drivers of environmental pressures?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Much environmental pressure is due to the production sectors of agriculture, industry, energy and transport. In the Netherlands, over 80 % of CO2 and NOx emissions are from these production processes. Almost 80 % of the acidifying emissions and over 50 % of greenhouse gas emissions come from these sectors, which themselves contribute less than 10 % to the GDP (Figure 3)

Figure 3. The environmental pressure due to transport, energy and agriculture is relatively high when compared with GDP (PBL, 2008)]


Figure 3. The environmental pressure due to transport, energy and agriculture is relatively high when compared with GDP (PBL, 2008)]

The performance of the service sector has been different. This sector generates almost 70 % of the GDP and generates little direct environmental pressure. It should be noted, however, that the services sector would not be able to produce without the input from the agricultural, energy and transport sectors.

What are the foreseen developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The Netherlands is and remains an energy-intensive economy. However, the eco-efficiency of the economy has improved. In a scenario with moderate economic growth and strong (international) environmental policy, this trend will continue (MNP, 2006).

In the long run, emission reduction may be negatively influenced by the recession, since the recession hampers environmentally sound investments necessary to achieve ongoing emission reductions. About half of the greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands are covered by the EU Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS).The projected low price of CO2 emission permits (as a result of the recession) also reduces the incentive for applying CO2-saving techniques (PBL, 2009).


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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