5 things we can do about the excess nitrogen problem

Nitrogen makes the sky blue, exists in every living organism, and is essential for the growth of plants and trees. That’s why farmers have always looked to maintain a rich enough soil to grow better crops. But too much nitrogen acidifies the soil, turns nature into monocultures, is bad for our health and even reduces food production. Therefore, a good nitrogen balance is essential, but now this balance has been distorted in many places around the world. Luckily there are things we can all do about it and most of the solutions help us address climate change as well.

What is nitrogen and when is it harmful?

78% of the air we breathe is nitrogen (N2). It’s a color- and odorless gas that isn’t harmful to people or nature in any way because it is non-reactive. But this non-reactive nitrogen can’t be used by plants to grow. They need reactive nitrogen, which is nitrogen that has bonded with other elements. The most important forms of reactive nitrogen are nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia (NH). In low concentrations these forms of nitrogen are not a problem, but in higher concentrations they are harmful to nature and humanity.

Where does the excess nitrogen come from?

The invention of fertilizer and the start of the large scale use of fossil fuels a hundred years ago offered many practical benefits and helped to feed millions of people. However, both methods introduce massive amounts of extra reactive nitrogen to the environment, which weren’t there before. All this extra nitrogen doesn’t just end up in the crops, but also get’s into the groundwater, the air and the surrounding nature. So in many agricultural, industrial and generally busy places the balance got disturbed.

Which sectors produce the most ammonia?

Ammonia, the biggest contributor to the nitrogen problem, comes almost entirely from agriculture. For instance from fertilizer and manure, urine, farts and burbs from farm animals:

Share of ammonia emissions per sector in the EU 1

Which sectors produce the most nitrogen oxides?

The most important source of nitrogen oxides, the second most prevalent form of nitrogen, is the burning of fossil fuels for commercial and industrial energy use and transport:

Share of nitrogen oxides emissions per sector in the EU 2

That’s why when the nitrogen concentrations are too high in a certain region you see governments regulate farming and restrict the number of allowed flights, newly constructed houses and factories and even the maximum driving speed.

What are the effects of nitrogen oxides and ammonia?

Especially in higher concentrations, the effects of nitrogen emissions are harmful in various ways:

Effects on nature

When there is too much nitrogen in the water, soil and air, many plants and trees die and the soil get’s more acidic, which increases the speed of this process even more. The vegetation get’s replaced by less biodiverse grasses, trees and shrubs that can handle this harsher environment. Meanwhile the number and diversity of insects, birds and other animals that depend on this vegetation reduces.

For aquatic life excess nitrogen poses a threat too. It is easily soluble in water, increases the level of plant growth and causes ‘algal blooms’. This reduces light and oxygen levels in the water and kills the fish.

Effects on our health

Nitrogen oxides are especially bad for people with asthma and other lung related health issues. It can cause lung infections and in the long term even chronic respiratory diseases. So if you have asthma, simply living near a busy road, energy plant or factory can cause asthma attacks and worsen the condition over time.

Ammonia is also harmful to people, but less so than nitrogen oxides. Only in very high concentrations that you usually don’t experience in daily life, it causes irritation to the eyes and lungs.

Effects on food production

For food production and a healthy nature we need pollinators such as bees, butterflies and wasps. But not only does their environment change significantly into monocultures because of excessive nitrogen, also their ability to sniff out flowers decreases: in polluted areas visits to flowers by pollinators were shown to be more than 80 percent lower3.

What can we do about the nitrogen crisis?

To avert the nitrogen crisis we need to cut back on nitrogen oxides and ammonia emissions, especially when they happen in high concentrations close to nature, or in areas where lot’s of people live. There are many things that regulators, farmers and the scientific community can do, but as an individual these are the top 5 things you can do yourself:

Eat less or stop eating meat and dairy

Even though nitrogen is used to grow crops, a lot more get’s released when we eat meat. Because the animals need to eat crops that were already grown with fertilizer and then the animals themselves emit nitrogen again. So the less animal products you eat, the less ammonia get’s emitted.

Buy organic plant based products, since they use recycled fertilizer

Organic plant based products don’t reduce or even increase the amount of nitrogen that leaks into the environment, but still it is a little better in one aspect. Organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizers, so they mostly recycle the fertilizer coming from farm animals that was already there. This way they don’t add more ‘new’ nitrogen to the environment.

Cycle, take public transportation or drive an electric car

Traffic is the biggest contributor to nitrogen oxides, which are not just harmful to the environment, but to our health as well. So whenever you need to go somewhere, you emit the least nitrogen if you walk, cycle, use public (electric) transportation or if necessary an electric car.

Get your energy from green sources such as solar and wind

Electricity production from fossil fuels is the second biggest contributor of nitrogen oxides. So it it’s possible in any way to get green power in your home that’s another great way to reduce the excess nitrogen. In many countries you can now change to a green electricity provider, and if you own or rent a home where it’s possible, you could install solar panels to generate your own power.

Support political parties that truly want to address the issue

While it’s great and necessary to do our own part in reducing excess nitrogen, still we need governments to come up with and enforce environmental policies that regulate nitrogen. So if you can vote for any party that addresses environmental issues seriously and intelligently that would be most helpful.

The next step in your environmental journey

By letting us plant trees for you in Tanzania to offset your carbon footprint you also get access to the program ‘In harmony with earth’ where you learn even more about how to make most environmentally friendly choices in life. So order your trees now:

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