The Netherlands country briefing - The European environment — state and outlook 2015

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 23 Nov 2020
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In its Assessment of the Human Environment 2012[1][2], the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency evaluates national government policy for the physical human environment and presents options for making improvements to this policy. This biannual report are published on the basis of the Article 4.2 of the Environmental Management Act. Supplementary up-to-date facts and figures about the environment, nature and spatial developments are provided on the Environmental Data Compendium website[3].

Quality of the human environment

In the Netherlands the quality of the local human environment has improved in recent decades. This is in contrast with the persistent issues the Netherlands faces around global human environmental quality, such as climate change and maintaining biodiversity. The high level of dependence on imported raw materials is also a concern.

Human environment shows significant improvements

Pressures from the environment decreased significantly between 1990 and 2010, or, in the case of greenhouse gas emissions, remained more or less stable. At the same time, gross domestic product increased by over 50%. Therefore, the Netherlands has succeeded in uncoupling economic growth from environmental pressure.

Regarding the human environment the following trends can be observed:

  • For greenhouse gas emissions the Netherlands adheres to its Kyoto commitment.
  • The emission of hazardous substances to the air has decreased significantly since 1990. The European emission ceilings for sulfur dioxide, ammonia and volatile organic compounds are not being exceeded. The emission of nitrogen oxides roughly equals the target.
  • The annual average concentrations for most air pollutants, such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, show a long-term decline. In most parts of the Netherlands these concentrations are below their limit values. However, locally there are still health effects due to poor air quality, particularly near busy roads
  • Surface water quality has improved considerably both chemically (nutrients, pesticides) and ecologically. However, the ecological quality of surface waters does not meet the objectives of the Water Framework Directive. Roughly half of rivers, drainage ditches and lakes have too high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphates as a result of over-fertilization in agricultural areas
  • The Dutch water safety policy of the past decades has contributed to much better protection against flooding in high-risk areas. However, due to population growth, increased prosperity the water security policy task has increased. The overall result is that despite ongoing investments, in 2011, one third of the primary dykes and one fifth of the coastal defenses do not meet national standards
  • Biodiversity has steadily declined during the past century. In the last years, this decline has been gradually slowing down. Decreasing over-fertilization and acidification have had positive effects on the loss of biodiversity. Due to expansion of nature areas land available to plant and animal species is increasing. Outside the nature areas, however, biodiversity still continues to show strong decline. Overall, biodiversity loss has slowed, but not stopped

Persistent global issues require systemic changes

The challenge in the coming years is to change production and consumption systems making more efficient use of natural resources while keeping hazardous emissions to a minimum[4][5]. In some cases this can be achieved by intensifying policy; at other times a more fundamental change of approach is required. This requires systemic changes; institutional reforms that help achieve a high-quality human environment without undermining the natural constraints, either in the Netherlands or elsewhere.

The challenges of the 21st century require a new approach

The environmental and sustainability challenges of the 21st century require a modern approach. Combating climate change, maintaining biodiversity and aiming for a circular economy require streamlining of legislation, active involvement of many parties and active international cooperation.

In 2014 the Dutch Government announced it would modernize its environmental policy, utilizing the energy that the public, companies and other authorities have in the field of environment and sustainability and retaining a safe and healthy living environment. This policy focuses on public health and also formulates an approach staying ahead of new environmental related health problems linked to the introduction of new substances in the environment[6].

Air quality and noise nuisance are linked environmental issues that still need attention. Measures to improve the environment in this respect include the reduction of transport emissions by making agreements at the appropriate European, national, provincial or local level; car-free urban areas; and stimulating people to use zero emission forms of transport like bicycling.

Finding answers to current and new problems is not only a task for the authorities. Initiatives of civil society organizations, market parties, as well as critical and involved citizens contribute to a sustainable society in which we can live, work and enjoy leisure activities in a safe, healthy and pleasant way.

International cooperation is becoming increasingly important in the environmental and sustainability domain. After all, air- and water pollution and environment related crime do not stop at borders and companies operate across borders far more often than in the past.

In addition to working actively at the international level legislation and regulations are updated in a new Environment Act giving the powers to the layer of government that can best solve particular environmental problems. The new Act will replace about 114 Orders in Council, some 100 of which have to do with the broad terrain of the environment.

Together with other member states the Netherlands would like to identify options for improvement and investigate with the European Commission how these options can be implemented. Examples are the planned revisions of existing regulations within the framework of the Commission's Regulatory Fitness and Performance programme (REFIT)

Energetic Society

The Dutch Government faces several challenges to achieve a sustainable human environment. At the same time it has much to gain from a better utilization of its citizens' creativity and innovation potential in an 'energetic society'[7]. By combining the mindset of 'green growth' with 'the energetic society', a new perspective is created on the role of government: one that considers the long term and that creates opportunities for a sustainable society.

An example of this approach is the 'Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growth'[8]. This agreement aims at achieving, within an international context, a wholly sustainable energy supply system by 2050. The Energy Agreement also aims to strengthen the economic structure and to contribute to future sustainable growth, by (re)investing in more energy-efficient products, production technologies and renewable energy. With this agreement more than forty organizations have laid the basis for an energy and climate policy enjoying broad support. These organizations include central, regional and local government, energy producers, financial institutions and civil-society organizations like employers' associations, unions, nature- and environmental organizations.

Green economy

There is rapid growth in global markets for clean and efficient products. Opportunities may lead to benefits if the Netherlands makes use of its innovative power, current economic structure and comparative advantages. While in the same time restricting the dependence on imported raw materials. There are at least three promising themes for the transition towards a greener economy: the bio-based economy, the sustainable built environment and the circular economy.

In each of these areas, the Netherlands has a strong knowledge base. In the area of the sustainable built environment, this is true for lightning technology and energy saving. Dutch architects and designers enjoy international recognition for their innovation and imagination. In the bio-based economy, the Netherlands also enjoys a strong comparative advantage. A green economy cannot be achieved by the business community alone; the government also has a clear role to play.

Investing now in innovation and a green growth strategy, will provide dividends later on. To support the transition towards a green economy the Dutch Government will take its role as 'launching customer'. Moreover, the government will review the effectiveness of a broad set of fiscal and financial incentives to promote the green economy and work in an international setting to help the sustainable economy move forward. So-called "Green Deals", engaging a broad coalition of stakeholders, are used to overcome boundaries currently blocking green developments. Another ambition is to remove laws and regulations obstructing entrepreneurs in making their production processes circular. On a strategic level the Netherlands aims by 2020 to be a hotspot of the circular economy where new social and economic processes go hand in hand with innovative technology and production processes.


[1] PBL, 2012a, Assessment of the Human Environment. The Hague, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

[2] PBL, 2012b, Assessment of the Human Environment website

[3] Netherlands Environmental Data Compendium website

[4] PBL, 2013a, Changing track, changing tack; Dutch ideas for a robust environmental policy for the 21st century. The Hague, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

[5] PBL 2013b, Green Gains; In search of opportunities for the Dutch economy. The Hague, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

[6] Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, 2014, Approach for the Modernisation of Environmental Policy. The Hague.

[7] PBL, 2011, The Energetic Society; In search of a governance philosophy for a clean economy. The Hague, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

[8] SER, 2013, Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growth, Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands, 9 September 2013. The Hague.


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


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