Trends and geographic variation in adverse impacts of nitrogen use in Europe on human health, climate, and ecosystems: A review
Reviewartikel, 2024

This paper presents a review of the trends and geographic variation of impacts of reactive nitrogen (N) inputs on in Europe through impacts on air, soil and water quality. It illustrates those impacts, by assessing temporal and spatial variation in air, soil and water quality indicators and their exceedances of critical thresholds in view of impacts on human health, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, during 1990-2019. Trends are derived from regular inventory and monitoring data and from simulated trends in air quality using the EMEP model. Well quantified adverse impacts of increased N use are: (i) the effects on human health due to increased tropospheric concentrations of NOx and ozone, and N-induced increases in fine particulate matter, (ii) the contribution of N2O to climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion, (iii) the loss of plant and faunal diversity both in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems via direct and soil mediated impacts, (iv) the acidification of forest soils, with impacts on tree forest nutrition, tree growth and tree vitality, and (v) the eutrophication of marine ecosystems, and associated biodiversity loss and occurrence of harmful algae blooms. Over the period 1990-2019, N inputs to agriculture stayed relatively constant, but the emissions of ammonia (NH3) decreased by 27%, while emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) decreased by 57%. In response to those reductions, concentrations of NOx, and of N in particulate matter also declined, although less than 50%. In contrast, the reduction in NOx-induced ozone concentrations and ozone related indicators (AOT40, SOMO35 and POD) was much less (ca 15-20%). Exceedances of critical ozone concentrations for human health and of critical AOT40 and POD vales for vegetation reduced in a similar order of magnitude. Despite decreasing NH3 emissions, NH3 concentrations showed a slight and steady increase from 1995 onwards, due to the large reduction in SOx emissions. Nitrogen deposition and exceedances of critical N loads for terrestrial ecosystems decreased by ca 60%, but the area exceeding critical N loads only reduced by ca 10%. Unlike N, the area exceeding critical acid loads has declined by more than 90% due to high reduction in SOx and NOx emissions. Trends in nitrate (NO3) concentrations in groundwater varied across Europe, but showed overall limited changes over the last two decades. However, N concentrations in surface water and the area exceeding critical levels in view of aquatic biodiversity has decreased and the same holds for N concentrations in coastal regions. Nevertheless, the eutrophication condition of coastal waters has overall not improved due to adverse impacts of elevated phosphorus inputs. Finally the negative impacts of N induced N2O emissions on climate are estimated to be outweighed by the positive effects of N induced CO2 sequestration, mainly in forests, and this holds for the whole period 1990-2019. Nitrogen hotspots, being areas with high exceedances in critical levels and loads of N compounds in air and water, are concentrated in intensive agricultural areas with high livestock densities and in urban region with strong industrial and traffic activities. Cost-benefit analysis shows that environmental costs of reactive N release to the environment are substantial and tend to exceed the direct economic benefits for agriculture. Given the relevance of N for safeguarding food production it is key to develop integrated and targeted plant nutrition strategies following a food system approach and practices that minimize trade-offs between productivity and the environment. In addition, targeted strategies to further reduce NOx emissions are needed to reduce air quality related health and biodiversity impacts.

Aquatic ecosystems

Human health


Terrestrial ecosystems

Forest vitality

Air pollution

Soil and water quality



W. de Vries

Wageningen University and Research

Maximillian Posch

Internationales Institut fuer Angewandte Systemanalyse

David Simpson

Meteorologisk institutt

Chalmers, Rymd-, geo- och miljövetenskap, Geovetenskap och fjärranalys

Frank A.A.M. de Leeuw

Netherlands National Institute Public Health and the Environment

Hans J.M. van Grinsven

PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

Lena F. Schulte-Uebbing

PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

M. A. Sutton

UK Centre For Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH)

Gerard H. Ros

Nutriënten Management Instituut (NMI)

Wageningen University and Research

Earth-Science Reviews

0012-8252 (ISSN)

Vol. 253 104789






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