Science & Environment

Nitrogen pollution 'costs EU up to £280bn a year'

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Media captionNitrogen pollution is exacerbated by livestock farming

Nitrogen pollution from farms, vehicles, industry and waste treatment is costing the EU up to £280bn (320bn euros) a year, a report says.

The study by 200 European experts says reactive nitrogen contributes to air pollution, fuels climate change and is estimated to shorten the life of the average resident by six months.

Livestock farming is one of the biggest causes of nitrogen pollution, it adds.

It calls for changes in farming and more controls on vehicles and industry.

The problem would be greatly helped if less meat was consumed, the report says.

Nitrogen is the most common element in the atmosphere and is harmless.

It is the reactive forms - mainly produced by human activity - that cause a web of related problems.

The 600-page report relies on experts from 21 countries and 89 organisations. It estimates the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen across Europe as being £55-£280bn.

Dr Sutton said nitrogen pollution was a serious issue not just in Europe but also N America, China and India.

Reactive nitrogen emissions from agriculture are the most intractable as they come from many diffuse sources.

The report says Europe needs nitrogen fertilisers for its own food security but blames many farmers for applying fertiliser carelessly to crops, so that excess nitrogen runs off to pollute water supplies.

Run-off from animal manure also fouls watercourses, and the release of nitrous oxides from uncovered dung heaps pollutes the air.

'Dominant driver'

Agriculture produces 70% of the nitrous oxide emissions in Europe.

New rules reducing nitrogen emissions from farms are introduced next year, but there are questions over whether these will be strict enough or properly enforced.

The report says more careful application of fertiliser will benefit farmers by saving money. It will benefit the climate by avoiding the energy used to create the fertiliser.

Lead editor, Mark Sutton from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology near Edinburgh, told BBC News that 80% of the nitrogen in crops feeds livestock, not people.

"It's much more efficient to obtain protein by eating plants rather than animals," he said.

"If we want to help the problem we can all do something by eating less meat. Eating meat is the dominant driver of the nitrogen cycle in Europe."

The report says government efforts to control emissions of reactive nitrogen from combustion sources have been more successful.

In the 1980s nitrogen controls were placed on industrial plant and vehicles, This has led to a cut in emissions of 30%, despite an increase in traffic and economic activity.

But the traffic increase has slowed progress in reducing emissions further, and people in many areas still suffer from nitrogen-related air pollution, including small particulates that get sucked deep into the lungs, and ground-level ozone - a strongly irritant gas formed by the action of sunlight on reactive nitrogen.

The authors note that industries have typically resisted controls on nitrogen, but that the benefits of reducing its emissions far outweigh the costs.

Dr Sutton said: "This report is the first time anyone has brought together the whole suite of environmental and human health issues from nitrogen on a Continental scale.

"There have been and still are many attempts to control nitrogen but we believe the big challenge is to link existing policy areas and make them work together."

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