The true cost of nitrogen pollution

The European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA), a major new investigation, today released its findings revealing the environmental and economic cost of nitrogen pollution in Europe.

The ENA, conducted by over 200 international experts, estimated that nitrogen pollution is already costing Europeans up to £650 each every year – amounting to a total of £280 billion. This cost reflects the value of damage to essential services, (known as ‘ecosystem services’), such as climate regulation and the supply of clean water and air provided by healthy ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity.

For decades nitrogen fertiliser has been used to increase agricultural food production in order to meet rising demands and feed the planets growing human population. The use of nitrogen fertiliser to improve crop yields has however had negative environmental impacts. Much of the nitrogen pollution associated with agriculture is linked to its use as a fertiliser to produce crops used to feed livestock intended for meat production. As a result, large areas of forest are cleared each year to make space for soy beans grown to feed Europe’s chickens, cows and pigs.

In terms of climate, up to 60% of the economic cost of nitrogen damage is derived from fossil fuels burnt in order to generate energy and from transport (with the remiaing 40% coming from agriculture). Nitrogen fertilisers also cause the release of nitrous oxide, one of the fundamental green house gases responsible for global warming. Furthermore, nitrogen also contributes to air pollution with negative implications for human health, reducing life expectancy and causing problems such as asthma and cancer.

Despite this, there remains a great need to use nitrogen fertiliser, and demand for fossil fuel combustion. Consequently, there is now more than ever, a need to improve the efficiency of processes associated with nitrogen pollution so as not to cause unnecessary damage to the environment. The ENA report addresses these issues and suggests we minimise future damage by reducing fossil fuel emissions through investment in clean energy for homes and transport, and by reducing our demand for meat. The report discusses altering the western diet by decreasing meat consumption, in order to ease the environmental pressures associated with its production. Present figures show that in Europe people currently eat 70% more meat and diary products than required for a healthy diet and therefore reducing meat intake could be beneficial for both human health and the environment.

The report concludes that the overall costs of damage to the environment at the expense of nitrogen pollution far out-weigh the direct economic benefits of using nitrogen in agriculture alone. In light of these developments a move towards a more sustainable lifestyle by individuals, institutions and government is needed. Defra’s Chief Scientist, Professor Bob Watson, remained positive commenting that “things are going in the right direction, [the UK has reduced nitrous oxides by 60% since 1990] but we do need to move faster to avoid this environmental damage”.