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Excessive Nitrogen Harms The Economy And Environment — First Europe-Wide Assessment Published

April 11, 2011

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

A major new study finds that nitrogen pollution is costing each person in Europe around £130 – £650 (&eur;150 ““ &eur;740 Euros) a year. The first European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA) is launched at a conference today in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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 (&eur;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 Affair (Defra) welcomes 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 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.

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 is published online in Nature today 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.”

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