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Project explores ways of protecting UK's conservation sites from nitrogen pollution

News Item 2020

PRESS RELEASE  Nitrogen Futures

Nitrogen pollution from the air is a major driver of biodiversity loss in the UK. Around 60% of the UK’s nature conservation sites and 17% (42,400 km2) of the UK’s total landmass are threatened by damaging levels of excess atmospheric nitrogen.

To address this, JNCC’s 'Nitrogen Futures' project, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is exploring options for protecting habitats and species that are vulnerable to increases in atmospheric pollution. The findings of the research, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), will inform policy development at UK, national and local scale.

A variety of human activities such as fertiliser use, livestock rearing, road traffic emissions, waste processing, and energy generation release nitrogen into the air, in the form of either ammonia or nitrogen oxides, depending on the source. It is then subsequently dispersed and deposited on land, lakes and rivers, and the sea.

Once within a sensitive ecosystem, excess nitrogen affects its ecological functions, mainly by allowing nitrogen-tolerant plants to out-compete key sensitive species. This results in negative impacts on the plants themselves or animals within the food web, including vegetation change, local extinction, increased sensitivity to frost, drought or diseases.

Nitrogen Futures will bring together available data on nitrogen emissions and estimate the benefits of different policy options to reduce pollution and improve outcomes for people’s health and nature conservation.

Researchers will quantify the effects of introducing targeted mitigation measures near conservation areas to maximise benefits to ecosystems, priority habitats and protected sites. Targeting measures to reduce nitrogen deposition has been shown to provide larger benefit than the same amount of emission reductions spread randomly across a larger geographical area.

As part of this project, the researchers will test possible local measures to reduce and mitigate nitrogen pollution, for example:

  • Introducing low emission 'buffer zones' around protected sites;
  • Planting trees to intercept airborne nitrogen;
  • Initiatives to target pollution from transport and combustion sources, such as Clean Air Zones; and
  • Reduction in emissions from power generation and industry.

The Nitrogen Futures project is run by JNCC in partnership with (Defra), the UK devolved administrations and the country nature conservation bodies (CNCBs). It is being undertaken by a consortium led by UKCEH in collaboration with Rothamsted Research, Aether, Air Quality Consultants (AQC), Lancaster University and Manchester Metropolitan University. Results are expected in spring 2020.  From June 2020 we will be looking to use the learning from Nitrogen Futures with partners and stakeholders – get in touch if you are interested.

To learn more about this project, the organisations contributing to it and how to get involved please contact JNCC. For information about other JNCC work on air pollution visit our Air Pollution webpages.


JNCC Spokesperson and Senior Air Pollution Adviser, Dr Susan Zappala, said:
"Nitrogen Futures is a ground-breaking project that will produce information to support policy development to decrease air pollution emissions. Air pollution has no boundaries, and we are delighted the UK countries are working together to tackle this important issue whilst also helping the UK to adapt to climate change.

JNCC is pleased to be leading the Nitrogen Futures project, which will enhance JNCC’s advice and evidence concerning the impacts of air pollution on biodiversity. JNCC’s core work is to promote UK integration of policies on air pollution and biodiversity. JNCC is committed to support UK joint-working among the devolved administrations and to facilitate partnerships with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the country nature conservation bodies (CNCBs) and research bodies through the Inter-agency Air Pollution Group (IAPG)".

Dr Ulli Dragosits of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), who is lead scientist on the Nitrogen Futures project, said:
"Nitrogen pollution has a cascading, negative impact on biodiversity, and the decline of sensitive species on land and in water ecosystems results in a series of knock-on effects on plants and the animals that rely on them for food. The project provides a real opportunity to test various possible future policy options for their impact on the environment and help to identify potential solutions for the future health of our environment."

– ENDS –

Notes to Editors

  • JNCC is the public body that advises the UK Government and devolved governments on UK-wide and international nature conservation. JNCC has strong links with the devolved governments and the country nature conservation bodies (CNCB) through its statutory remit and plays an important role in nature conservation at a UK scale, by co-ordinating nature conservation action at a UK level; working in partnerships to provide common approaches, shared solutions and best practice; and providing a cost-effective and robust environmental evidence base across the UK.
  • Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is the government department responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
  • The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) is an independent, not-for-profit research institute which provides the data and insights that researchers, governments and businesses need to create a productive, resilient and healthy environment. Our ambition is to understand our environment, how it sustains life, and the human impact on it – so that together, people and nature can prosper. We carry out excellent environmental science across water, land and air. Our science makes a difference, informing policy-making, commercial innovation and conservation action all around the world.
  • For a general overview of atmospheric nitrogen and effects on ecosystems the following report might be helpful "We need to talk about nitrogen".

For further information, spokesperson’s contact and images please contact:

Tel: 01733 866839
Twitter: @JNCC_UK
Facebook: @JNCCUK

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