Establishing a Scottish Nitrogen Balance Sheet

This report sets out the main findings from the initial version of the Scottish Nitrogen Balance Sheet. Establishing a whole-economy Nitrogen Balance Sheet is a requirement under the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019.


The element nitrogen is a basic building block of life, which underpins the production of food and appears in many other important processes. Nitrogen was discovered in Scotland 250 years ago, by Daniel Rutherford, the nephew of Sir Walter Scott.

The efficient use of nitrogen is important as it helps to both maximise economic benefits, for example for those producing our food through reducing wastage of nutrients contained in fertilisers, and minimise a range of harms that can occur through losses of nitrogen. These harms include contributions to climate change through emissions of greenhouse gases, impacts on human health through emissions of air quality pollutants, and impacts on biodiversity in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems through excess nutrient inputs from both atmospheric nitrogen deposition and leaching/run-off.

The importance of nitrogen across Scotland’s economy and environment was recognised by the Scottish Parliament during the scrutiny of the Bill that became the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019. During the progress of that Bill, Scottish Ministers committed to developing the first ever statutory Nitrogen Balance Sheet for Scotland.

This commitment has been taken forward in a way that has provided key sectors and interests with an opportunity to input their views and I am grateful to all who responded to the public consultation. This input assisted with the development of this first version of the Scottish Nitrogen Balance Sheet. I would also like to express my thanks to the many technical bodies and experts that have contributed their expertise.

Scotland is the only country in the world to have enshrined in law a regularly updated, cross-economy and cross-environment Nitrogen Balance Sheet. This is a further example of our pioneering approaches in responding to the global climate emergency, as the new Balance Sheet will help to support progress to Scotland’s ambitious national greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. As already noted, the wide scope of a Nitrogen Balance Sheet will also help support efforts to minimise other harmful effects, including on air quality and biodiversity, and the delivery of a range of benefits, particularly in relation to the efficiency of food production.

Put simply, the optimal use of nitrogen helps to ensure that economic, environmental and wellbeing outcomes can be achieved alongside one another. The Scottish Nitrogen Balance Sheet provides a powerful new, joined-up, evidence base to support these efforts.

This first version of a statutory Scottish Nitrogen Balance Sheet represents the start of the journey, rather than the final destination. This initial phase of work has highlighted and reinforced the benefits of taking a whole system approach to considering issues around how nitrogen is used in Scotland. Our work has also identified information gaps, potential improvements and challenges to be addressed in future, as part of the regular review and updating of the Balance Sheet. I look forward to working with Parliament and others with an interest in nitrogen as this work continues.

Màiri McAllan MSP, Minister for Environment and Land Reform



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