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Nitrogen and Sustainability


Admission requirements

This course is an elective module for the MSc Programme on Governance of Sustainability, and also open to students from the MSc Industrial Ecology.


The Netherlands experiences a nitrogen and sustainability crisis since the judgment of the council of state in May 2019 about the programmatic approach nitrogen (PAS). This is a good example of the conflicts of interest between the economic growth on the one side and nature quality on the other. During this course you will be introduced to the complexity of the issue through lectures on the historical background of the nitrogen issue, the legislative and juridical aspects, the role and interest of different stakeholders and the role of politics. Furthermore, by using the Nitrogen Footprint model you will learn about the consequences of your consumption pattern for the nitrogen losses to the environment.

Course objectives

After this course you have/are able to:

  • Evaluate the different aspects and drivers in the nitrogen challenge and quantify the impacts of food and lifestyle choices on sustainability

  • Weigh the balance between economic benefits and ecological benefits and give concrete examples

  • Analyze the roles of different stakeholders in nitrogen management and sustainability and its success and failure

  • Use and evaluate Nitrogen Footprint model

  • Develop future policies and possible solutions related to sustainability


You will find the timetables for all courses and degree programmes of Leiden University in the tool MyTimetable (login). Any teaching activities that you have sucessfully registered for in MyStudyMap will automatically be displayed in MyTimeTable. Any timetables that you add manually, will be saved and automatically displayed the next time you sign in.

MyTimetable allows you to integrate your timetable with your calendar apps such as Outlook, Google Calendar, Apple Calendar and other calendar apps on your smartphone. Any timetable changes will be automatically synced with your calendar. If you wish, you can also receive an email notification of the change. You can turn notifications on in ‘Settings’ (after login).

For more information, watch the video or go the the 'help-page' in MyTimetable. Please note: Joint Degree students Leiden/Delft have to merge their two different timetables into one. This video explains how to do this.

Mode of instruction

By lectures, feedback sessions, using the Nitrogen Footprint model and self-study.

Assessment method

Assignment 1:
Student nitrogen low lifestyle paper. Describe a student nitrogen low lifestyle in 2 pages. The 2 pager will be assessed and it weights 25% of the final grade. This assignment will be presented during the first lecture.

Assignment 2:
Stakeholder position paper. Students will individually write a stakeholder position paper with clear arguments supported by facts on how they would see the nitrogen crisis to be solved from the perspective of a stakeholder assigned to them. This assignment is graded and accounts for 50% of the final grade.

Assignment 3:
Stakeholder debate and presentation. In groups of 4-5, students will have a discussion/debate on how to solve the Dutch nitrogen crisis together with all stakeholders. Students will present the outcomes of this stakeholder debate in presentations to the rest of the class. The presentations are graded and account for 25% of the final grade.

Reading list

  • De Vries, W., Kros, H., Kroeze C., and Seitzinger,S. P., (2013) Assessing planetary and regional nitrogen boundaries related to food security and adverse environmental impacts. Curr. Opin. Env. Sust. 5, 392–402.

  • Erisman et al. 2015: Nitrogen a vital resource. Scientific brief:

  • Erisman et al. 2021: Set ambitious targets for agriculture (online 21 jan)

  • European Nitrogen Assessment (2011)

  • Sutton et al. 2013 Our Nutrient World

  • UNEP (2019) Frontiers 2018/19 Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.Sutton et al. 2013

  • van Grinsven, H. J. M., M. Holland, B. H. Jacobsen, Z. Klimont, M. a. Sutton, and W. Jaap Willems. 2013. Costs and Benefits of Nitrogen for Europe and Implications for Mitigation. Environ Sci Technol 47: 3571-3579, doi: 10.1021/es303804g.


From the academic year 2022-2023 on every student has to register for courses with the new enrollment tool MyStudyMap. There are two registration periods per year: registration for the fall semester opens in July and registration for the spring semester opens in December. Please see this page for more information.

Please note that it is compulsory to both preregister and confirm your participation for every exam and retake. Not being registered for a course means that you are not allowed to participate in the final exam of the course. Confirming your exam participation is possible until ten days before the exam.

Extensive FAQ's on MyStudymap can be found here.


Coordinator(s): Jan Willem Erisman, Suzanne Marselis J.W. Erisman

Other involved teachers: invited guest lectures by external speakers


This course is an elective module for the MSc Programme on Governance of Sustainability, and also open to students from the MSc Industrial Ecology.

The course focusses on the Dutch nitrogen and sustainability crisis and will be taught in English. However, especially for the second assignment the available literature is mainly in Dutch. This might be a limitation for international students, even though translation options of most of the texts is possible.