New free hands-on tool supports sustainable living choices

Monday April 11, 2011 10:38

Nitrogen footprint calculator enables individuals to chart and reduce their contribution to growing problem of nitrogen pollution.

People who want to eat healthy and live sustainably have a new way to measure their impact on the environment: a web-based tool that calculates an individual’s ’nitrogen footprint’. The device was created by a team of scientists of the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) and the University of Virginia. The calculator is a project of the International Nitrogen Initiative, a global network of scientists who share research and data on the nitrogen dilemma. This project will be launched in Europe during the Nitrogen and Climate Conference in Edinburgh (11-14 April).  

What’s the big deal about nitrogen? Although most of the nitrogen in the atmosphere we know is completely harmless (unreactive nitrogen, 78% of the earth’s atmosphere), once turned into reactive nitrogen by artificial fertilizer production or burning of fossil fuel, it shows us its full potential. This is clearly shown in the European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA), being presented during this Nitrogen and Climate Conference, although many European citizens outside the agricultural world may not have heard about the associated problems before. For the last 30 years,  leading global scientists (James Galloway (University Virginia) and Jan Willem Erisman of ECN being amongst them) have been noting fish kills in coastal areas, threats to human health as a result of air and water pollution, and changes to global biodiversity and climate. This tool is one of their attempts to win more understanding of nitrogen’s role in our lives. 

The ENA shows that the Nitrogen story is a complex one, with positive and negative effects simultaneously. While on the one side nitrogen is essential to plant life, and thus for our food production, through artificial fertilizer use, excess nitrogen use in the food production chain will eventually lead to a plethora of unwanted effects. On top of that is the combustion of fossil fuels, adding to the effects of excess nitrogen in our environment.  

Fertilizer use and combustion are the major sources of nitrogen
Scientists are calling nitrogen pollution a major environmental problem that includes significant damage to air and water quality in different regions in Europe, with large European and national policy efforts to reducing nitrogen runoff from farms and industry. Chemical fertilizer use and combustion engines are the main sources of nitrogen pollution. Scientists who are recording dramatic changes to ecosystems from the US to China say the disruption of the nitrogen cycle leads the list of global tipping points and have named it a top threat to global biodiversity. It contributes to human health problems, water pollution, ozone layer depletion, smog, climate change, and coastal dead zones. Nitrous oxide, created mostly from grain and meat production, is also a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Erisman and Bleeker - who developed several tools to raise public and political awareness such as the nitrogen game NitroGenius and the Nitrogen Visualisation tool ( - and their colleagues hope the nitrogen footprint calculator will both raise the profile of the nitrogen issue and galvanize people into action. By measuring what and how much you eat, as well as other factors like how you travel, the calculator shows your impact on the nitrogen cycle.

Reducing your nitrogen footprint
The website also makes recommendations for how to lessen your “nitrogen footprint.” They are similar to other sustainable living choices: reduce airplane travel, choose renewable energy, and eat less meat, particularly beef. Professors and lecturers are already using the tool in classrooms to teach students how one individual can alter -and help restore- a natural cycle like nitrogen.

This new footprint calculator is the first in a series of research tools, known as N-Print, which the N-Print team are developing to connect the production of nitrogen with the policies used to manage it. The team is currently creating a similar calculator for farmers and other nitrogen users, as well as a tool for policymakers that will provide regional nitrogen emission ceilings, which will show how much nitrogen can be released in these regions without major negative environmental impact.

This project is supported by the Ministry of Environment in The Netherlands, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Agouron Institute, the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands and the University of Virginia.

Press invitation
Press is welcome to attend to the press conference on behalf of the ‘European Launch of the Nitrogen Footprint Model’ on April 13th at the Edinburgh International Convention Center. To register please go to the invitation form. Here you will find the programme of this presentation.

More information
For more information please visit or contact:
Jan Willem Erisman, Prof. Integrated Nitrogen, Free University Amsterdam and Unit manager ECN,, +31 224-564155;
Albert Bleeker, Senior Scientist Integrated Nitrogen ECN,, +31 224-564130;
Florentine de Maar, Press officer ECN,, + 31 224 564040 

Category: Corporate, Biomass, Coal & Environment