Most people understand the concept of a carbon footprint, but now researchers in the U.S. and the Netherlands have created a nitrogen footprint calculator. This uses information about your food and energy use to work out your nitrogen footprint. If you live in the U.S., the Netherlands or Germany you can directly compare it with the national average too.
But why would you want to know?
Nitrogen is essential for life – 78 per cent of the Earth’s atmosphere comprises N2 gas. But Earth’s growing population is releasing way more of it than the environment can cope with. Burning fossil fuels and food production are the main culprits. The use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers to improve crop yields releases lots of surplus nitrogen into the environment.
In his recent article in Planet Earth, ‘Distilling Nitrogen Science,’ Mark Sutton said:
If carbon and climate change seem to top the public agenda, consider that nitrogen pollution affects both, while also causing air and water pollution that reduces life expectancy and threatens biodiversity.
But once you’ve worked out how your behavior is influencing nitrogen pollution, what can you do about it? As Sutton explained:
The European Nitrogen Assessment shows that only 15 per cent of the nitrogen in crop harvests goes to feed people – with the rest feeding the European livestock herd. At the same time, the average European citizen eats 70 per cent more protein than is needed for a healthy diet.
So for the meat eaters among us, cutting back on our red meat intake could be a simple place to start.
Calculate your nitrogen footprint here.
Planet Earth online is the companion website to the award-winning magazine Planet Earth published and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).