Nitrogen Balance Sheet

Nitrogen is a basic building block of life. It is present everywhere across the economy and environment, a constituent of a wide range of materials and processes and is especially important in relation to growing and producing food, waste management and activities involving fuel combustion.

This means that effective and efficient use of nitrogen is an important consideration across many sectors of the economy, environment and well-being. Losses of nitrogen to the environment, via air pollutants and greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and leaching and run-off into water can have harmful effects on, for example, climate change, biodiversity, air quality and water quality.

The Scottish Nitrogen Balance Sheet

On 15 December 2021, the Scottish Government set out legislative proposals for establishing an economy and environment wide Scottish Nitrogen Balance Sheet (SNBS).   Alongside these proposals, we have published a full initial (baseline) version of the Scottish Nitrogen Balance dataset and accompanying report setting out the key findings 

The SNBS provides a powerful new source of evidence to track how efficiently nitrogen is used in Scotland and help identify further opportunities to improve this. In particular, it will help support progress towards Scotland’s national climate change targets. This is because one form of nitrogen - nitrous oxide - is an important greenhouse gas. Improving nitrogen use efficiency will, therefore, help with tackling climate change. However, the fact that nitrogen is basically everywhere means that the SNBS will also support a range of wider policy applications - such as air quality strategies and further promoting efficiency in food production.

Establishing the SNBS is an important step in developing the national evidence base around these matters, by bringing together data from a range of sources and providing baseline metrics for nitrogen use efficiency. Nitrogen use efficiency means the proportion of nitrogen used for vital, intended purposes (e.g. growing food) compared to the total inputs of nitrogen into the economy and environment. In line with the requirements of the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, the SNBS provides a method for determining a baseline figure for economy-wide nitrogen use efficiency. As set out in the accompanying report (link above), an analysis undertaken at this level of detail is internationally pioneering and has few precedents or comparators.

Approach to development 

The technical approach to developing the new SNBS has built upon a previous technical study by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in 2019, as well as international guidelines for nitrogen reporting. The project has expanded the scope of that earlier study to include all major sectors of Scotland’s economy and environment in the Balance Sheet, where data availability allows.

Following an initial phase of engagement with stakeholder organisations in October 2020, the Scottish Government consulted from December 2020 to January 2021 on a set of proposals for key aspects of the SNBS, both in terms of its technical parameters and how its outputs can best be communicated and used to inform policy. The consultation analysis report and an initial response were published via our consultation hub in March 2021.

The Scottish Government’s legislative proposals for the SNBS were then subject to scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament between December 2021 and February 2022.

Following agreement by the Parliament, the Climate Change (Nitrogen Balance Sheet) (Scotland) Regulations 2022 came into force on 11 March 2022. A copy of the Regulations can be found on the legislation.gov.uk website. The baseline version of the SNBS dataset and an accompanying report was published at the same time as the Regulations coming into force.  

Next steps

The SNBS will now be reviewed and updated on an annual basis from 2023 onwards – helping us keep track of progress in improving the use of nitrogen. After each such round of review, an updated version of the Balance Sheet dataset will be published, with an accompanying report setting out assessments of progress towards relevant on-the-ground actions to improve the use of nitrogen and identification of opportunities for further improvements in future.

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