Jenny Hawley, Senior Policy Officer at Plantlife, has kindly written a blog post for us about the We need to talk about Nitrogen policy workshop.
We need to talk about Nitrogen
13 March 2017
By Jenny Hawley, Senior Policy Officer, Plantlife
Plantlife and PSE’s workshop on nitrogen deposition raises the profile of this forgotten issue
While greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution are widely recognised environmental problems, fewer people are aware of the impact of nitrogen in air pollution (or atmospheric nitrogen deposition) on fungi, plants, soils and ecosystems.
In January 2017, the BES Plants-Soils-Ecosystems SIG, in collaboration with the charity Plantlife, brought together stakeholders from government agencies, research institutes, farming bodies and NGOs to look at ways to tackle this. As the workshop report shows, one of the key recommendations focused on translating decades of scientific research into greater public awareness and political action.
Taking this on board, Plantlife and the Plant Link UK network published the report ‘We need to talk about nitrogen’ in March which threw the issue into the news headlines – and into the mix of debates around air quality, climate change, farming practices and wildlife protection. There was even a celebrity chef promoting his recipe for nettle soup on Radio 4’s Today programme!
What’s the problem?
Burning fossil fuels and intensive farming practices have lead to the buildup of pools of reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere. This nitrogen is then being deposited onto soils and vegetation – and stays there. As a result, nitrogen-loving species (such as nettles) are thriving while many other species of fungi, lichens and plants are declining – the environment is too fertile for them.
Significant effects include species loss, changes in soil chemistry and habitat degradation, as a result of eutrophication (excessive nutrient enrichment, leading to biodiversity loss), acidification or direct damage through toxicity. Early evidence suggests that this may have a knock-on effect on other species groups, including insects and birds. Overall, 63% of the UK’s most sensitive wildlife habitats are affected by excessive nitrogen deposition. In England alone, this figure rises to a remarkable 96%.
Atmospheric nitrogen pollutants come in the form of nitrogen oxides from the burning of fossil fuels and ammonia, mainly from farm livestock and fertilisers. Globally, NOx emissions are projected to stabilise, but ammonia emissions are expected to continue to rise until 2050, presenting a huge challenge.
What needs to happen next?
The results of our January workshop will inform future work by Plantlife, BES and others to communicate the science and potential solutions to politicians, environmental NGOs and others. We need to see action at local, national and international to reduce emissions, prevent their dispersal, mitigate the impacts and restore wildlife-rich sites.
Nitrogen deposition cuts across several policy areas, including agriculture, transport, energy, climate change, air quality, water quality and public health. While this makes it more complex, it also throws up plenty of opportunities for action. So let’s keep this on the agenda and keep talking about nitrogen.