The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) today published evidence showing local action is the most effective way to protect nature conservation sites from nitrogen pollution.  

The findings come from its Nitrogen Futures project, which indicates while national measures have a role to play in reducing background pollution levels that can harm sensitive habitats, a “one size fits all” approach is not best way to combat the complex mix of UK pollution sources. 

The project, funded by Defra, explored mitigation options for protecting habitats and species that are vulnerable to nitrogen pollution in the atmosphere. 

The study found focusing mitigation efforts on the immediate surroundings of conservation  sites close to nitrogen pollution sources produced the maximum benefit. By contrast, sites in  more remote locations will benefit most from emission reductions across the UK and from abroad. 

The project will provide each of the four nations with up-to-date evidence to design measures which further reduces the impact of air pollution onto sensitive habitats, to better protect the UK’s biodiversity. 

Nitrogen pollution is a major driver of biodiversity loss in the UK. In 2017 over 57% of the  area of sensitive habitat in the UK had deposited pollution above thresholds where it is  harmful to sensitive habitats (Trends Report 2020). There is increasing evidence that  nitrogen pollution has driven local extinctions of sensitive plant species across the UK, reducing the richness of habitats and contributing to declines in populations of insects and  other animals that depend on nitrogen sensitive species for food and habitat. 

The Nitrogen Futures project is coordinated by JNCC in partnership with Defra, the UK  Devolved Administrations and the Country Nature Conservation Bodies. It is being  undertaken by a consortium led by Dr. Ulli Dragosits at UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology  (UKCEH) in collaboration with Rothamsted Research, Aether, Air Quality Consultants  (AQC), Lancaster University and Manchester Metropolitan University. 

To learn more about this project, the organisations contributing to it and how to get involved  please contact JNCC. For information about other JNCC work on air pollution visit our Air Pollution webpages.

JNCC Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: 

“Projects like Nitrogen Futures will be critical in helping us find the best ways to not only  meet our emission reduction targets, but also to most effectively support wildlife and the  countryside. 

“Air pollution overall has fallen in the UK since 2010, but more action is required both here  and abroad to protect precious areas of natural beauty which have been damaged by  decades of harmful emissions. Through sharing our knowledge and expertise with other  countries, we can lead the way in tackling it.” 

JNCC Chief Executive Marcus Yeo said: 

“Nitrogen Futures is a ground-breaking project that will support policy development to  decrease air pollution emissions and protect biodiversity. Air pollution has no boundaries,  and we are delighted the UK countries are working together to tackle this important issue.” 

“JNCC is pleased to be leading the Nitrogen Futures project, which will enhance JNCC’s  advice and evidence concerning the impacts of air pollution on biodiversity. The project is an  excellent example of collaboration across the UK, bringing together the Department for  Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the devolved administrations, the country  nature conservation bodies and research organisations”. 

Professor Alan Jenkins, Science Director at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology  (UKCEH), said: 

“Our research into mitigating the environmental impacts of atmospheric nitrogen pollution,  such as this latest study, includes finding solutions to biodiversity loss. High-resolution  modelling enables us to calculate current and future emissions from a wide range of sources  across the country as well as the amount of nitrogen pollution in the air and deposited onto land. We can also test mitigation options to predict whether different measures would  provide better protection for sensitive habitats and conservation sites.” 

Joint Nature Conservation Committee