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Nitrogen Futures

The Nitrogen Futures Project

Nitrogen is an important nutrient for plant growth and food production. However, excess nitrogen can be harmful to human health and affect biodiversity and ecosystem services by causing widespread changes to sensitive ecosystems. This excess nitrogen can be emitted to the air as ammonia (NH3) from agriculture and waste management and re-deposited onto soils and plants, and into freshwater bodies. Road transport and industry are also significant sources, via emissions and subsequent deposition of oxides of nitrogen (NOx). The Clean Air for Nature webpage contains more information and a short animation that provides an introduction to sources of air pollution and the effects on nature. 

Impacts are felt at a range of scales, from local, to regional, to global. In 2016 more than 60% of the area of sensitive habitat in the UK had more nitrogen deposition than it can cope with effectively (Trends Report 2019).

In response, a partnership project has been initiated between Defra, the devolved administrations (DAs) the country nature conservation bodies (CNCBs) and JNCC. Funded by Defra, the project is being undertaken by a consortium led by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) which brings together leading expertise from CEH, Rothamsted Research, Aether, Air Quality Consultants (AQC), Lancaster University and Manchester Metropolitan University, and ran from August 2019 to March 2020.

The project report, and accompanying annexes, were published in October 2020. 

The Project

The Nitrogen Futures project aims to compare current and possible future emission reduction policies to help maximise the benefits to ecosystems and the people that live near them.

The project will quantify the benefits from a range of potential emission mitigation options and develop different scenarios. The scenarios will explore the location for mitigation measures to maximise benefits to ecosystems and protected areas. The project results will be used as evidence to inform policy development at UK, country and local-scale.  


Project Objectives

  • To develop quantitative spatial datasets for emissions of NH3 and NOx in 2030, building on future projections of source activities.
  • To develop spatial targeting scenarios up to 2050 based on bundles of appropriate measures.
  • To develop a set of metrics for assessing ecosystem benefits for a set of scenarios and evaluating against policy objectives.
  • To model the implication of the scenarios developed under previous actions on emissions, concentration, deposition and vegetation effect metrics of atmospheric N (NH3, NOx).
  • To analyse the scenarios for the relative importance of NOx and NH3 contributions to reductions in emissions and nitrogen deposition across the UK.
  • To test whether local implementation of the optimised mitigation scenarios is effective, using a number of local case studies.
  • To qualitatively analyse and assess co-benefits and trade-offs with greenhouse gas emissions, water quality and human health, across UK national, country and local scales.


Project Partners

Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)

Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)

Natural England (NE)

Welsh Government

Scottish Government

The Northern Ireland Government

Natural Resources Wales (NRW)

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

Northern Ireland Environment Agency (DAERA)

Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH)

Rothamsted Research

Air Quality and Climate Change Emissions Consultant (Aether)

Air Quality Consultants (AQC)

Lancaster University

Manchester Metropolitan University


Project Outputs

The project report was published in October 2020. It details the methods and results of modelling the different policy scenarios together with the optimisation of the spatial targeting of NH3 and NOx mitigation measures.

It also discusses how emission mitigation scenarios might interact with other policy areas; the case studies explored during the project demonstrate how scenarios work in practice at local scale.

The main report has an executive summary and six annexes with further detail on methods and results as follows:

  • Annex 1: Future nitrogen emission scenarios & comparison with baselines – Development of the 2030 baseline scenarios, with underlying assumptions on how the UK will meet the NECR targets. Includes detailed information on projections of activity data and emission factors, and methodology.
  • Annex 2: Development of spatially targeted scenario options for 2030 and beyond – Review of options for scenario modelling and selection of a subset for implementation under UK-scale scenario modelling and local demonstration.
  • Annex 3: Ecosystem benefit metrics – Review of ecosystem benefit metrics and selection of subset to be used for UK-scale scenario modelling and local demonstration; and recommendations for future development of metrics.
  • Annex 4: UK scenario modelling and policy evaluation – Outputs from UK-scale scenario modelling, including tables, graphics and datasets, at UK- and country-level; provides more detailed analysis than the main report.
  • Annex 5: Local demonstration – local case studies for local assessment of spatial targeting of mitigation, including methods and outputs.
  • Annex 6: Extended scenario description table – Excel spreadsheet providing more details for the 15 scenarios modelled in a single larger summary table.

You can find the report and its annexes on the Resource Hub


Previous Projects

The Nitrogen Futures project builds on earlier investment in research with key stakeholders and previous projects such as:

  • DEFRA project AC0109 (Ammonia Future Patterns, CEH-led consortium), which requires an update.
  • DEFRA RAPIDS Defra Contract AQ0834 (CEH & Rothamsted Research) – measures and delivery mechanisms to reduce atmospheric nitrogen input to designated sites.
  • Site categorisation and assessment for atmospheric N inputs and mitigation – Natural England IPENS-49 and IPENS-50 (CEH & Rothamsted Research); NRW AAANIS project (CEH); NIEA EMIND project (CEH).
  • DAERA ammonia projects linked to Making Ammonia Visible report (CEH, Rothhamsted Research) – scenario modelling.
  • DEFRA Ammonia Futures – investigating feasibility of and barriers to NH3 measures in England through regional workshops, trade-offs and costs (Ricardo AEA).
  • DEFRA National Air Pollution Control Programme (NAPCP) 2018-2020 – scenarios on cost-effective achievement of the National Emissions Ceilings Directive (NECD) targets while maximising human and ecosystem health and crop benefits.



Nitrogen Futures Webinars

JNCC hosted a number of air pollution webinars throughout the duration of the Nitrogen Futures project. These are available to view: 

'Introduction to Nitrogen Futures', held on 15 October 2020.  

Air pollution webinar series in March 2020: 

  • Webinar #1 (4 March 2020) – 'Nitrogen is in the air...' 
  • Webinar #2 (11 March 2020): JNCC's air pollution work and UK evidence tools; and the effects of air pollution on ecosystems.
  • Webinar #3 (17 March 2020): Nitrogen pollution and natural capital.


Nitrogen Futures: Non-technical report

More information about the Nitrogen Futures project is provided in the Nitrogen Futures: Non-technical Report.


Nature News

Find out more about our air pollution work in our recent Nature News article: 2020 – a year of air pollution progress (Nature News Winter 2020).



To learn more about this project please contact us.



Air Pollution

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