More than 150 top international scientists are calling on the world to take urgent action on nitrogen pollution, to tackle the widespread harm it is causing to humans, wildlife and the planet.
The scientists highlight that "the present environmental crisis is much more than a carbon problem" and are asking all countries "to wake up to the challenge" of halving nitrogen waste from all sources globally by 2030.
Nitrogen, through its many forms—which include ammonia, nitrogen dioxide, nitrous oxide ('laughing gas', a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide) and nitrate—is polluting our air, soil and water, posing a threat to human health, biodiversity, economies and livelihoods.
Nitrogen has many forms with multiple impacts in the environment:
Gases such as ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are key components of particulate matter, thereby contributing to poor air quality which can aggravate respiratory and heart conditions, leading to premature deaths
Nitrate from chemical fertilisers, manure and industry pollutes rivers, seas and soils posing a health risk for humans, fish, coral and plant life
Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a greenhouse gas that depletes the ozone layer and is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
A future focus on sustainable nitrogen management would help prevent millions of premature deaths, help ensure food security, and simultaneously help protect wildlife and the ozone layer.
Currently, 80 per cent of nitrogen used by humans—including through crop, meat and dairy production, as well as via transport, energy, industrial and wastewater processes—is wasted and enters the environment as pollution.
UK scientists are leading global research efforts into the sustainable use of nitrogen in agriculture, transport and industry. They have released a report outlining the problem and possible solutions.
The report 'Nitrogen: Grasping the Challenge' has been produced by INMS which includes contributions from more than 70 UK and international science institutes, government agencies and companies.
It highlights possible ways of reducing nitrogen pollution, including more efficient use and application of fertilisers and manure in agriculture; cutting food waste plus avoiding excessive meat and dairy consumption to reduce global production; and, new technology to recapture nitrogen oxide emissions from transport and fossil fuel burning.