NITROEUROPE – Shedding light on an overlooked threat to our planet
As the overwhelmingly dominant element in the atmosphere around us, and one of the four most common elements in living organisms, it gets surprisingly little attention. Especially when its impact on humans and the planet has been described, by a recent expert report, as "one of the biggest challenges of the 21th century".
Nitrogen makes up 78 % of the air we breathe.
It is an essential building block in all living things.
But its story demonstrates that it is possible to
have too much of a good thing. Despite its life-
giving benefits, nitrogen also poses a growing
threat to humans.
That threat has now reached such proportions
that "business as usual" is no longer a viable
response. It was to address this issue that an
EU-funded, five year project called "NitroEurope"
was set up in 2006, bringing together 62
partner organisations from 24 countries.
Nitrogen in the air is harmless. To be used, it
needs to be changed into "reactive nitrogen"
(Nr). This transformation occurs mainly as a result
of natural bacterial activity, or by human
intervention in the form of chemical engineering.
Perhaps the most familiar form of reactive
nitrogen is in fertilisers.
Here, the beneficial effect of Nr is clearest. It is
estimated that, if humans had not started using
it in fertiliser in the early 1900s, half of today's
population would not be alive.
But excess quantities of reactive nitrogen cause
a range of problems. It damages soil and water
quality, pollutes the air and contributes to the
greenhouse effect. Nitrates in water affect
human health, increasing the risk of bowel
cancer. In the air, reactive nitrogen creates
pollutants which can lead to respiratory and heart
All of which explains why the recently published
European Nitrogen Assessment, to which
NitroEurope made a major contribution, described
the issue as one of the biggest challenges
of the 21st century.
In order to tackle the problem, it is important
to understand it. This was the primary aim of
the NitroEurope project - studying the Nr issue
in unprecedented detail, in order to understand
exactly how Nr behaves and impacts the environment.
One achievement of the € 27 million project
was the establishment of a "European Nitrogen
Budget". This showed that Europe produces
15.6 million tons of Nr per year, with almost
three quarters coming from fertilisers. The
remainder is produced by combustion from
transport or industrial processes.
The researchers were able to put an economic
value on the effects of nitrogen pollution, estimating the total cost of the impact on human
health, biodiversity and climate change at as
much as € 320 billion per year. Meanwhile, air
particles based on Nr are reckoned to reduce
average European life expectancy by six months.
The project also revealed that, of the reactive
nitrogen present in crops in Europe, only 15 %
is used to feed humans directly, with 85 % used
to feed animals.
From this, a key conclusion was clear.
Reducing meat and dairy consumption
would provide a major part of
the solution to the world's nitrogen
The Nr threat is clear. But so, too,
is the way forward. As a result
of the understanding created by
the work of NitroEurope, there is
no reason why humanity cannot
now start to tackle this major
21st century challenge.
Participants: Poland, Hungary, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Estonia, Denmark, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Norway, France, Russian Federation, China, Zimbabwe, Belgium, Ukraine, Ireland, United Kingdom (Coordinator), Slovakia, Croatia, Finland, Austria, Portugal