Nitrogen pollution, resulting from industry and agriculture, is putting wildlife in Europe’s at risk

Tractor spraying fertilizer

Extra income gained from fertilizer use is
outweighed by annual cost of nitrogen damage

Nitrogen is needed to feed a growing world population but pollutes air, soil and water

A major new study has found that nitrogen pollution is costing each person in Europe around £130 – £650 (€150 – €740) a year. The first European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA) is launched at a conference today (11 April) in Edinburgh, Scotland. The 4 minute long official launch video can be watched on Youtube.

The study, carried out by 200 experts from 21 countries and 89 organizations, estimates that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen across Europe is £60 – £280 billion (€70 – €320 billion), more than double the extra income gained from using nitrogen fertilizers in European agriculture.

Professor Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), welcomed the report. He said, “The assessment emphasizes how nitrogen links the different environmental issues that we have come to know so well: climate, biodiversity, air, water, and soil pollution. It develops the vision for a more holistic approach, which is vital if we are to make progress in tackling these issues.”

The ENA (available to download here) is the first time that the multiple threats of nitrogen pollution, including contributions to climate change and biodiversity loss, have been valued in economic terms at a continental scale.  As well as identifying key threats the assessment also identifies the geographical areas at greatest risk of damage by nitrogen pollution.  The report provides EU policymakers with a comprehensive scientific assessment on the consequences of failing to address the problem of nitrogen pollution – and outlines key actions that can be taken to reduce the problem to protect environmental and public health.

The assessment deals with ‘reactive nitrogen’ which includes ammonia, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), nitrogen oxides (NOx) which form acid rain and smog, and nitrates,  as distinct from the ‘inert nitrogen’ which makes up 78% of the atmosphere.

Key messages from the assessment include:

  • At least ten million people in Europe are potentially exposed to drinking water with nitrate concentrations above recommended levels.
  • Nitrates cause toxic algal blooms and dead zones in the sea, especially in the North, Adriatic and Baltic seas and along the coast of Brittany.
  • Nitrogen-based air pollution from agriculture, industry and traffic in urban areas contributes to particulate matter air pollution, which is reducing life expectancy by several months across much of central Europe.
  • In the forests atmospheric nitrogen deposition has caused at least 10% loss of plant diversity over two-thirds of Europe.

The lead editor of the ENA, Dr Mark Sutton from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said, “Nearly half the world’s population depends on synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizer for food but measures are needed to reduce the impacts of nitrogen pollution. Solutions include more efficient use of fertilizers and manures, and people choosing to eat less meat. We have the know-how to reduce nitrogen pollution, but what we need now is to apply these solutions throughout Europe in an integrated way.”

To accompany the ENA launch a commentary by Dr Sutton has been published online in Nature outlining why curbing nitrogen emissions is a central environmental challenge for the twenty-first century.

Dr Hans van Grinsven, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and lead author of the ENA cost-benefit analysis on nitrogen in the environment, said, “The present environmental costs of nitrogen for Europe are very high. Our analysis shows that the financial benefits resulting from abatement of nitrogen problems will outweigh the costs of many of the available measures.  We conclude that this will be true also for agriculture, even taking into account the benefits of nitrogen fertilizer for farm income and food production.”

The ENA is being launched at the start of the week-long Nitrogen and Global Change conference in Edinburgh (11-14 April).  The Assessment was conducted through a network of projects supported by the European Commission and the European Science Foundation, and reports to the Air Convention of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Additional information

CEH issued a press release for this story. For press queries, please contact the CEH press office

The 4 minute long official launch video can be watched on Youtube.

For details about the Nitrogen and Global Change event, see the conference website: www.nitrogen2011.org. You can follow updates from the event on twitter #nitrogen2011

The European Nitrogen Assessment is available to download from the Nitrogen in Europe (NinE) website.

ENA information from Cambridge University Press.

Related CEH links

Managing the European Nitrogen Problem – a publication from CEH and the Partnership for European Environmental Research (PEER)

Details of CEH’s Biogeochemistry science programme

Research interests of Dr Clare Howard

Research interests of Dr Stefan Reis

Media coverage (external links)

Nitrogen footprint warning from European agency – guardian.co.uk

Nitrogen pollution ‘costs EU up to £280bn a year’ – BBC Online

Call for cuts in fertiliser use as nitrogen pollution cost revealed – Yorkshire Post

Nitrogen ‘damaging health and environment’ – BBC Radio 4 Today

More about the European Nitrogen Assessment

The assessment deals with ‘reactive nitrogen’ which includes ammonia, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), nitrogen oxides (NOx) which form acid rain and smog, and nitrates,  as distinct from the ‘inert nitrogen’ which makes up 78% of the earth’s atmosphere.

The European Nitrogen Assessment has been prepared through coordinated action led by the Nitrogen in Europe (NinE) Research Networking Programme of the European Science Foundation, the NitroEurope Integrated Project supported by European Commission’s 6th Framework Programme, and the COST Action 729.

The Assessment is a contribution to the work of the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen (TFRN), led by the UK and the Netherlands, in support of the long-term goals of the UN-ECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP). In parallel, the Assessment represents a European contribution to the work of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), a joint project of the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), providing evidence to underpin many United Nations and other multi-lateral agreements.

The ENA has been conducted as a scientifically independent process. The views and conclusions expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect policies of the contributing organizations.

EcoDebate, 14/04/2011

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