11 April 2011

Europe’s nitrogen footprint causes concern

Nitrogen pollution is costing each person in Europe between £130 and £650 (€150 - €740) a year, according to a new study.

Across Europe between £60 billion and £280 billion is spent annually responding to damage from nitrogen pollution to water, climate, health and wildlife. This is more than double the extra income gained from using nitrogen fertilisers in agriculture.

The first European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA), released today (11 April) to coincide with the start of a week-long ‘Nitrogen and Global Change’‘ conference in Edinburgh, looks to put an economic value on the multiple threats of nitrogen pollution.

Welcoming the report, Professor Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “The assessment emphasises 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 study by 200 experts, from 21 countries and 89 organisations across Europe found that around ten million people in Europe have been potentially exposed to drinking water with nitrate concentrations above the recommended levels.

Acid rain, which contains harmful levels of nitrogen oxides has caused at least 10 per cent loss of plant diversity over two-thirds of Europe. There has also been an increase in nitrous oxide – a harmful greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere in large qualities.

The study also found that nitrogen-based air pollution from agriculture, industry and traffic has contributed to an increase in respiratory problems and reduced life expectancy by several months across central Europe.

The study outlines key actions that can be taken to reduce harmful levels of nitrogen to protect environmental and public health. The authors recommend a more efficient transport and industry system and action by individuals to reduce their energy use.

With the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers in agriculture a major cause of pollution, the report authors urge policy makers and farmers to find ways to use less fertiliser. They also believe meat production is key and diets with less meat should be encouraged.

Dr Mark Sutton, from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and lead editor of the ENA said, “Nearly half the world’s population depends on synthetic, nitrogen-based fertiliser for food but measures are needed to reduce the impacts of nitrogen pollution.

"Solutions include more efficient use of fertilisers 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.”


Image: Soil Science | flickr

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