UN initiative targets nitrogen waste

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UN member states meeting in Sri Lanka have endorsed a proposed roadmap for action on nitrogen challenges, set out in the ‘Colombo Declaration on Sustainable Nitrogen Management’.

Environment ministers and officials from 30 countries approved plans for a campaign on sustainable nitrogen management, called ‘Nitrogen for Life’. This emanates from a resolution adopted during the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly, which was held in March this year.

The declaration urges countries to conduct a comprehensive assessment on nitrogen cycling that covers policy, implementation, regulation and science, and to sensitise citizens to an understanding of the natural nitrogen cycle and how human impacts alter its balance.

The initiative has been developed with technical support from the International Nitrogen Management System (INMS), a joint activity of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Nitrogen Initiative, supported by the Global Environment Facility.

The Colombo declaration aims to halve nitrogen waste by 2030. Joyce Msuya, UNEP deputy executive director, said: ‘Humanity’s very existence depends on nitrogen. Over time, we have learned how to harness its power. Pulling nitrogen from the air and fixing it in soil is one reason the human population has expanded so rapidly. Yet its usefulness has come at a terrible cost. Our failure to use nitrogen efficiently is polluting the land, air and water.’

Nitrogen is combined with hydrogen to produce ammonia, the raw material for most nitrogen fertilisers, which are a major cause of eutrophication. Nitrate is also released to the environment in wastewater. Scientists have devised an acronym, ‘WAGES’, to describe where it has an impact: ‘water, air, greenhouse gases, ecosystems and soils/stratospheric ozone depletion’. The aim of the new initiative is to link all of these separate areas of study.

Professor Mark Sutton, the INMS project director, said: ‘This is a historic moment for planet Earth. For the first time, governments have agreed to work together on a major quantitative global goal for nitrogen management. The aspiration to halve nitrogen waste by 2030 offers a $100 billion opportunity to mobilise innovation for the nitrogen circular economy, while contributing to environment, health and livelihoods.’