The Programmatic Approach in Environmental Governance
: The Dutch and Flemish Programmatic Approach to Nitrogen as cases for the Programmatic Approach in Environmental Governance

  • B van Iwaarden

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


The Programmatic Approach is used as environmental governance tool in situations where environmental pressures must be balanced with Nature conservation within a limited Environmental Utilization Space. The Dutch and Flemish Programmatic Approach to Nitrogen (PAN), both implemented to deal with Nitrogen Deposition on vulnerable Natura 2000 habitats, are studied as example cases to gain insights into their strengths and weaknesses and propose possible improvements for a Programmatic Approach in general. The analysis of both cases uses the Environmental Utilization Space model (EUS) as theoretical framework. Within the EUS model, the focus in the case-studies is on three research aspects: (1) uncertainties, (2) Monitor-Learn-Adaptation (MLA)-principle, and (3) trade-off influences. In total, 39 research documents have been studied using deductive coding with Atlas Ti. After analysis of the observations, the preliminary findings have been studied in more detail by conducting 5 expert interviews.
The research shows that bot the Dutch and Flemish PAN failed to provide a solution for the problem of nitrogen deposition. A major weakness in the Dutch and Flemish PAN is the dependency on voluntary cooperation by farmers to invest in emission reducing source measures, and cooperation of landowners to support habitat recovery measures. The lack of back-up source measures to adjust the PAN as needed, hampered proper application of the Monitor-Learn-Adapt principle which is a key principle in a PA. Another weakness in the Dutch and Flemish PAN was the poor level of ecological monitoring. Clear ecological reference points and indicators to monitor ecological effects still had to be established, and the application of the MLA-principle looked good on paper but was not effective in practice. The trade-off of socio-economic interests and nature conservation by permitting authorities is supported differently in the Dutch and Flemish PAN. The Dutch PAN supports the permitting authorities by means of the AERIUS monitoring module which reduces the permitting to ND bookkeeping. This is clear but oversimplifying the ND problem and the ecological perspective. A more sophisticated but intensive process is applied in Flemish PAN. The Appropriate Assessment of permit requests, and the use of Search Zones to optimally designate conservation objectives in habitats, allow to incorporate local circumstances and knowledge. This supports the permitting
authorities during the balancing act. A strength in the Dutch and Flemish PAN is that much effort is put in the development of ecological monitoring indicators and the efforts to improve ND calculations and models. The main findings that follow from this research is that, in order to work effectively, a Programmatic Approach should (1) avoid dependency on voluntary cooperation, (2) have back-up measures readily available to adapt approach to changing circumstances and the results of monitoring, and (3) leave flexibility for permitting authorities to incorporate local circumstances and knowledge. A Programmatic Approach however can not materialize without serious fundamental political choices to bring the levels of environmental pressures back within the EUS boundaries within a reasonable time.
Date of Award26 Mar 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRaoul Beunen (Examiner) & Jean Hugé (Co-assessor)

Master's Degree

  • Master Environmental Sciences

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