What is our nitrogen footprint?

Putting too much “Active Nitrogen” into the air, soil, water and sea

In Dan O’Neill’s book Enough is Enough he refers to the work of Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, whose proposition is that economic activity should respect planetary boundaries.  Johan Rockström identified nine of these:-  of which three are currently being exceeded.

Planetary boundaries

One of these is the Nitrogen Cycle. This describes the cycle by which the nitrogen that is present in different chemical forms in air, the soil, plants and water is converted from one form to another, some of the processes involved being natural, whilst others are driven by the activities of humans. Gaseous nitrogen (N2) in the air is inactive. The other forms e.g. NO2, NO, NH3 and NH4 compounds are “Active nitrogen”

The process for making industrial fertilizers on an industrial scale was invented exactly 100 years ago. These nitrogen fertilizers have enabled us to support a world population at least twice the size we could do without them.

The burning of fossil fuels and the prolific use of nitrogen fertilisers have had a dramatic impact on the nitrogen cycle.  Some of the negative results of this include increased greenhouse gas accumulations (nitrous oxide), accelerated ozone depletion (also caused by increased nitrous oxide), more acidic rain, too much nitrate in drinking water, and threats to fish from excessive ammonia and nitric acid. The active nitrogen compounds in rivers and lakes algae to grow in vast amounts, and when the algae dies in autumn, the bacteria breaking down the algae use up all the oxygen – so the fish and other water life die. e.g. the dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

There is a good article and 8-minute video which explains more about the subject at the following link: http://www.n-print.org/node/31  Here is the video explaining the carbon cycle

Elsewhere on this website, there is a calculator for measuring your personal nitrogen footprint:


After answering the questions, the calculator provides you with a chart showing the various contributions made to your overall nitrogen footprint by food, transport, housing and goods and services.

It isn’t worth worrying too much about giving precise answers. The most important observation is that for many people the nitrogen footprint of food consumption is likely to be far larger than all the other factors combined.

After answering the questions and looking at the result, it is worth then going back and adjusting the answers you have given for each category (eg how much dairy you consume) to see the effect on the chart.   Meat and dairy consumption make a large difference!

This post is based and expanded on an article written by David Miller for Milton Keynes Christian Environment Group.

Have you noticed  examples of changes in wildlife (plants and algae) in the UK which are occurring as a result of increased active nitrogen?



Author: | Date: 22 August, 2014 | Category: Climate Change | Comments: 0

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