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Is nitrogen a major cause of climate change?

Guest Centre for Ecology & Hydrolo

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Guest Centre for Ecology & Hydrolo

Dr Mark Sutton from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has spent his research career investigating the complex role of nitrogen, sometimes called the ‘NitroNet’ challenge, in the environment. This week he has written a short piece on the subject for the BBC ‘Green room’ forum, a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website.


In the ‘Green room’ article Dr Sutton discusses the ‘NitroNet’ challenge and suggests that, “…farming and industry are producing too much of a substance we ought to be concerned about; not carbon, but nitrogen.” He adds, “Over the last decade, you have surely heard many views as to why you should worry about carbon and climate change. But the chances are you're not worrying about nitrogen. In fact, there is a global nitrogen threat out there, yet the world seems not to notice.”


There are many different nitrogen forms, from atmospheric ammonia, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, to the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and nitrates in aquatic systems. Each has different effects: increased air pollution threatens human health and biodiversity, disturbance of the greenhouse gas balance, and loss of drinking and bathing water quality. While human-caused global climate change has long been a concern for environmental scientists and is a well-known public policy issue, the problem of excessive reactive nitrogen in the environment is little-known beyond a small but growing circle of environmental scientists.


Dr Sutton’s research team would like to hear ideas on what society should do about the global nitrogen problem. In collaboration with the European Science Foundation, they have developed an online poll that can be used to register views and priorities on the issue.

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