Nitrogen pollution: the forgotten element of climate change

Nitrogen pollution: the forgotten element of climate change

While carbon pollution gets all the headlines for its role in climate change, nitrogen pollution is arguably a more challenging problem. Somehow we need to grow more food to feed an expanding population while minimising the problems associated with nitrogen fertiliser use.

In Europe alone, the environmental and human health costs of nitrogen pollution are estimated to be €70-320 billion per year.

Nitrogen emissions such as ammonia, nitrogen oxide and nitrous oxides contribute to particulate matter and acid rain. These cause respiratory problems and cancers for people and damage to forests and buildings.

Nitrogenous gases also play an important role in global climate change. Nitrous oxide is a particularly potent greenhouse gas as it is over 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Nitrogen from fertiliser, effluent from livestock and human sewage boost the growth of algae and cause water pollution. The estimated A$8.2 billion damage bill to the Great Barrier Reef is a reminder that our choices on land have big impacts on land, water and the air downstream.

Lost nitrogen harms farmers too, as it represents reduced potential crop growth or wasted fertiliser. This impact is most acute for smallholder farmers in developing countries, for whom nitrogen fertiliser is often the biggest cost of farming. The reduced production from the lost nitrogen can represent as much as 25% of the household income.

The solution to the nitrogen challenge will need to come from a combination of technological innovation, policy and consumer action.

The essential ingredient

Nitrogen is an essential building block for amino acids, proteins and DNA. Plant growth depends on it; animals and people get it from eating plants or other animals.

Nitrogen gas (N₂) makes up 78% of the air, but it cannot be used by plants. Fertilisers are usually made from ammonia, a form of nitrogen that the plants prefer.