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Environmental problems related to nitrogen concern all economic sectors and impact all media: atmosphere, pedosphere, hydrosphere and anthroposphere.
Therefore, the integration of fluxes allows an overall coverage of problems related to reactive nitrogen (Nr) in the environment, which is not accessible from sectoral approaches or by focusing on specific media.
This chapter presents a set of high resolution maps showing key elements of the N flux budget across Europe, including N2 and Nr fluxes.
Comparative nitrogen budgets are also presented for a range of European countries, highlighting the most efficient strategies for mitigating Nr problems at a national scale. A new European Nitrogen Budget (EU-27) is presented on the basis of state-of-the-art Europe-wide models and databases focusing on different segments of Europe's society.
From c. 18 Tg Nr yr−1 input to agriculture in the EU-27, only about 7 Tg Nr yr−1 find their way to the consumer or are further processed by industry.
Some 3.7 Tg Nr yr−1 is released by the burning of fossil fuels in the EU-27, whereby the contribution of the industry and energy sectors is equal to that of the transport sector. More than 8 Tg Nr yr−1 are disposed of to the hydrosphere, while the EU-27 is a net exporter of reactive nitrogen through atmospheric transport of c. 2.3 Tg Nr yr−1.
The largest single sink for Nr appears to be denitrification to N2 in European coastal shelf regions (potentially as large as the input of mineral fertilizer, about 11 Tg N yr–1 for the EU-27); however, this sink is also the most uncertain, because of the uncertainty of Nr import from the open ocean.
Anthropogenic releases of reactive nitrogen (Nr) can disturb natural systems and affect human health and welfare in many different ways. Scientific and policy views of the nitrogen cycle have typically addressed these problems from separate perspectives, looking in each case at only part of the overall issue.
Given the multi-faceted nature of the nitrogen cycle, it is a major challenge to develop a more-integrated understanding of how different areas of nitrogen science and policies fit together.
Observations from the first part of the European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA Part I) are summarized, considering the distinctive character of Nr in Europe, the benefits and threats, and the current policies. Approaches to developing the following parts of the Assessment are discussed with an emphasis on how to draw out the key issues.
Recognizing the multi-pollutant, multi-phase complexity of the nitrogen cycle, it is concluded that it is essential to focus on a limited set of priority issues to allow effective communication between nitrogen scientists and policy makers.
A pathway is developed for prioritization of the key environmental concerns of excess Nr. Starting with around twenty environmental effects, the list is reduced down, first to nine main concerns, and then to five key societal threats.
Nitrogen (N) budgets of agricultural systems give important information for assessing the impact of N inputs on the environment, and identify levers for action.
N budgets of agro-ecosystems in the 27 EU countries are established for the year 2000, considering N inputs by fertiliser application, manure excretion, atmospheric deposition and crop fixation, and N outputs by plant uptake, gaseous emissions, mineralisation, leaching and runoff.
Country N budgets for agro-ecosystems are based on the models INTEGRATOR, IDEAg, MITERRA and IMAGE. Fine geographic distribution is depicted with the former two models, which have higher spatial resolution. INTEGRATOR is the only available model for calculating non-agricultural terrestrial N budgets systems.
Key findings/state of knowledge
For EU-27, the models estimate a comparable total N input in European agriculture, i.e. 23.3–25.7 Mton N yr−1, but N uptake varies largely from 11.3–15.4 Mton N yr−1, leading to total N surpluses varying from 10.4–13.2 Mton N yr−1. Despite this variation, the overall difference at EU-27 is small for the emissions of NH3 (2.8–3.1 Mton N yr−1) and N2O (0.33–0.43 Mton N yr−1) but estimates vary largely at a regional scale. The estimated sum of N leaching and runoff at EU-27 is roughly equal to the sum of NH3, N2O and NOx emissions to the atmosphere, but estimates vary by a factor two, from 2.7 to 6.3 Mton N yr−1.
Although cities take only 1.5%–2% of the Earth's land surface, due to their dense population, settlement structure, transportation networks, energy use and altered surface characteristics, they dramatically change the regional and global nitrogen cycle. Cities import and concentrate Nr in the form of food and fuel, and then disperse it as air and water pollution to other ecosystems covering much larger areas.
A mass-balance approach was used in order to quantify the fluxes of reactive nitrogen (Nr) in and out of cities.
Cities can be characterised either as a source of Nr (i.e. emitting large amounts as liquid or solid household waste, automobile exhaust, air pollution from power plants) or a sink of Nr (through importing more food, fossil fuels, etc., and having fewer emissions to the air and water).
Paris metropolitan area is used as a case study, which represents an evolving European capital with much available data.
Key findings/state of knowledge
The Paris Metropolitan Area changed from being a sink in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a source of Nr today. Major changes in the city functioning occurred before 1950, but especially recent decades have been characterised by an unprecedented amplification of those changes.
Too much nitrogen harms the environment and the economy
Over the past century humans have caused unprecedented changes to the global nitrogen cycle, converting atmospheric di-nitrogen (N2) into many reactive nitrogen (Nr) forms, doubling the total fixation of Nr globally and more than tripling it in Europe.
The increased use of Nr as fertilizer allows a growing world population, but has considerable adverse effects on the environment and human health. Five key societal threats of Nr can be identified: to water quality, air quality, greenhouse balance, ecosystems and biodiversity, and soil quality.
Cost–benefit analysis highlights how the overall environmental costs of all Nr losses in Europe (estimated at €70–€320 billion per year at current rates) outweigh the direct economic benefits of Nr in agriculture. The highest societal costs are associated with loss of air quality and water quality, linked to impacts on ecosystems and especially on human health.
Nitrogen cascade and budgets
The different forms of Nr inter-convert through the environment, so that one atom of Nr may take part in many environmental effects, until it is immobilized or eventually denitrified back to N2. The fate of anthropogenic Nr can therefore be seen as a cascade of Nr forms and effects. The cascade highlights how policy responses to different Nr forms and issues are inter-related, and that a holistic approach is needed, maximizing the abatement synergies and minimizing the trade-offs.
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