Writing in The Ecologist, Natalie Bennett highlights the world’s mismanagement of the nitrogen cycle, calling it ‘our forgotten environmental crisis’:
‘The UK has an outsized impact on the world. And I’m not talking about adventures in gunboat diplomacy or disastrous military adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I’m talking about how our way of life is profoundly damaging and unsustainable – using up our share of the resources of three planets when we only have this one fragile, heavily damaged, one.
A recent report from the World Wildlife Fund created a league table of the worst possible sort – a chart of damage.
Overall it concluded that the UK needs to reduce its ecological footprint by 60 per cent, material footprint by 38 per cent, biomass footprint by 48 per cent, phosphorus footprint by 85 per cent and carbon footprint by 85 per cent.
But top of the table – a ranking that will probably surprise many – is nitrogen, at 89 per cent.
Earlier this year, an article in the New Scientist called the world’s mismanagement of the nitrogen cycle “our forgotten environmental crisis”.
The article points out that we should, to fit within the world’s planetary limits, only be fixing 62 million tonnes of nitrogen a year on land: that’s the process by which atmospheric nitrogen is converted into nitrogenous compounds, by either microbes or human industrial processes.
We are currently fixing at least 300 million tonnes of nitrogen each year – five times as much as the world can bear.
It’s an issue that has in the past 10 years received serious international expert attention, if scant public attention.
The international nitrogen management system project (INMS) was set up by the UN a decade ago with the aim of doing what the IPPC did for carbon emissions and setting global targets for nitrogen.
The initial thought was that it should set a target around the figure I have just cited, but decided it was politically impossible, so instead set a global target of halving nitrogen waste by 2030.
It is worth saying – and this fits in very much with the needs of farmers – that applying and fixing nitrogen has huge costs.
Nitrogen efficiency use by farmers around the world has now fallen from 50 percent in 1961 to 42 percent today. We think we’re in a state of progress, but we are going backwards in terms of our efficiency in the use of nitrogen.’