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'Better to take action today, than to deal with the damage tomorrow'

It’s better to cut our nitrogen emissions now than to solve the consequences later at great expense. That’s the lesson we can learn from the Dutch nitrogen crisis, according to nitrogen expert Jan Willem Erisman. In Science, he shares this lesson with other countries. According to Erisman, we should start with cutting our ammonia emissions. ‘If the world were to take ammonia measures now, this would result in major health gains at relatively low costs.’

Originally, reactive nitrogen was only present in nature to a limited extent. But mankind has caused an enormous increase over the past century. ‘This leads to a loss of biodiversity, soil acidification and a surplus of nutrients in coastal and natural areas,' says Erisman. ‘The latter sounds positive, but it means that algae and other fast-growing organisms flourish and suppress other life. In addition, nitrogen also has a harmful effect on our health.’

Nitrogen oxides en ammonia
The nitrogen in our atmosphere comes mainly from nitrogen oxides and ammonia. Both form particulate matter in the air that is harmful to our health. If you inhale too many fine dust particles, it can even seriously shorten your life expectancy.

Ammonia reducation is cheaper and easier

For this reason, many countries worldwide are trying to reduce their nitrogen emissions. Until now, the focus has been on nitrogen oxide emissions. ‘But according to my colleague Baojing Gu, it would be better to focus on ammonia,’ says Erisman.’ Together with the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), Gu has calculated that air pollution by nitrogen annually costs 23.3 million years of human life worldwide. Using models, you can translate that into an economic cost of about 420 billion dollars a year. The costs of reducing our ammonia emissions are only a fraction of this.’

'In large parts of the world, reducing ammonia emmissions is relatively easy.'

Ammonia emissions are cheaper to reduce than nitrogen oxides. Erisman: 'If we want to emit a kilo less nitrogen, it costs $16 to do so via nitrogen oxides. But by reducing our ammonia emissions, we achieve the same goal for only $1.5.’ In large parts of the world, such as the US, China and India, reducing ammonia emissions is relatively easy, according to Erisman. ‘Here, we can reduce the amount of chemical fertiliser without sacrificing yields and use animal manure much more effectively.’

Ammonia and the Dutch nitrogen crisis

‘In the Netherlands, we have already taken these cheap measures,’ says Erisman. ‘The emission of ammonia has dropped by 60 per cent since 1990. Despite this reduction, we are not achieving the targets and the Council of State has ruled that more is needed to protect Dutch nature.’

Policymakers are now looking hard for new ways to reduce nitrogen and ammonia emissions, so that they can once again issue sufficient permits to build houses and expand roads. Erisman: ‘The PBL estimates that the costs of reducing these emissions are many times higher than in the rest of the world.’

The Netherlands as an example

The new cabinet will have to spend billions of euros on this. Erisman: 'If we had taken measures ten years earlier, we would now have a better balance between a sustainable economy and nature. The changes that are needed now will affect the economy, especially that of food production. Farmers will need help, encouragement and resources to adapt.

'A solution to our nitrogen problem will be very expensive if we not begin to develop in a more sustainable way'

Solving our global nitrogen problem will be very expensive if industry and agriculture do not begin to develop in a more sustainable way, Erisman says. Gu and his colleagues show that the global damage to the environment, the economy and our health now is far greater than the cost of action. We must take action today. We in the Netherlands have proven that by now.’

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