Science & Technology

Resolution on nitrogen can lead to a carbon-like framework

The resolution for sustainable nitrogen management in the United Nations Environment Assembly was led by India for the first time

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Wednesday 20 March 2019
Nitrogen pollution
Image: Getty Images Image: Getty Images

The United Nations Environment Assembly 4 (UNEA4) in Kenya’s Nairobi recently passed a resolution for sustainable nitrogen management. The resolution, which for the first time was led by India, has made experts believe that it can help establish an international coordination for nitrogen similar to what exists for carbon.

The authors of the Frontiers report released by the UNEA on March 4, 2019 had also suggested that all the policy frameworks, which deal with nitrogen, should be studied and a single framework should be built. They also called for an international convention and forum for the discussion on nitrogen.

“Of course, these resolutions in UNEA also give the mandate to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to include their contents in their own work programme and in planning their budgets and conducting their activities. We can expect UNEP to take up more N-specific activities in future,” says N Raghuram, chairman of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI).

The resolution recognised the threats of pollution due to human emissions of reactive nitrogen on “the terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments”. But it also acknowledged the benefits of nitrogen use for food and energy production. It noted that global use of reactive nitrogen is extremely inefficient as 80 per cent of all nitrogen used is lost to the environment creating a cascade of impacts, from pollution affecting human health and ecosystem services to green house gas emissions which lead to climate change and also ozone depletion.

 “Passing a resolution at UNEA is an important milestone, but it is just the beginning of any global process of engagement. It is for the member countries to walk the talk by taking measures at the national, regional and global levels to carry forward these decisions,” says the INI head.

The resolution further said the efforts being made across various countries towards dealing with these imminent threats are fragmented and recognised this as a major roadblock to the development of policies which can mitigate the deleterious effects of nitrogen pollution. It said the fragmentation is also impeding the quantification of tradeoffs between the different forms of nitrogen pollution.

 “This is a great opportunity for India to lead the world by example by taking exemplary domestic actions and also helping regional initiatives at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) level through higher investments and engagement with South Asia Cooperative Environment Program (SACEP). I think India should also invest more in the UNEP activities, at least on topics led by India,” adds Raghuram.

This issue had also been highlighted in the Frontiers report. The report highlighted that there’s “growing demand on the livestock, agriculture, transport, industry and energy sectors has led to a sharp growth of the levels of reactive nitrogen — ammonia, nitrate, nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O) — in our ecosystems.”

Nitrogen is essential to all life on Earth as it forms an important component of life-building and propagating biochemical molecules like proteins. But overuse in agriculture in the form of fertilisers and other fields have made this important element more bane than boon. This is why many scientists, including Raghuram, have called nitrogen the “new carbon”.

The Frontiers report had also warned that “the scale of the problem remains largely unknown and unacknowledged outside scientific circles”.

The UNEA resolution did recognise the various initiatives taken by organisations around the world on nitrogen pollution including the South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme and the International Nitrogen Management System.

In the end, the resolution, answering many questions raised by the Frontiers report, called on the executive director of the UNEP to consider the establishment of “an intergovernmental coordination mechanism on nitrogen policies, based primarily on existing networks and platforms and consider the case for developing an integrated nitrogen policy”.

The resolution also wants a coordinated effort from various UN organisations like the Food and Agricultural Organization for better management of the nitrogen cycle on the planet. This would mean sharing of methodologies, practices and technologies for recycle and recovery of nitrogen and other such nutrients to ensure the Sustainable Development Goals are met.

It also wants global bodies to coordinate on data sharing and calculating the benefits of successful nitrogen management.

Further, it stated that the member states will “report on the progress achieved in the implementation of this resolution in UNEA-6.”

The International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) which has been at the forefront on the subject of nitrogen pollution welcomed the UNEA4 resolution for Sustainable Nitrogen Management. It further “appreciated the Indian leadership and South Asian unity for global action on this very important global topic.”

“We sincerely hope that the member countries will take all the necessary national and regional initiatives to support this global initiative to prevent further accumulation of reactive nitrogen compounds that damage our health, biodiversity and climate,” the INI said in a statement.

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