The Social Cost of Nitrogen: Evidence from Germany

Excessive emissions of nitrogen into the air, soils, inland waters and oceans lead to ecosystem degradation with the consequence of eutrophication of inland waters and marine ecosystems, a significant loss of biodiversity and high costs for drinking water treatment.

Furthermore, nitrogen compounds are directly harmful for human health: e.g. ammonia leads to the formation of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides encourage the formation of ground-level ozone, nitrate residues and carcinogenic nitrosamines can occur in foods. Most nitrogen emissions into the environment are caused by agriculture, in particular the use of synthetic fertilisers. In Germany agriculture is responsible for about 80 percent of nitrogen emissions into surface water bodies and 50 percent into the air. The policy instruments applied so far, e.g. land management rules established within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy or Germany’s Fertilizer Ordinance, have not succeeded in lowering Germany’s nitrogen surplus. With respect to groundwater bodies the EU target of 50 mg per litre was violated at more than 28 percent of the monitoring stations for the 2012 – 2014 reporting period, so that the EU started infringement procedures against Germany.