Nitrogen is an essential nutrient to support life, but if poorly managed, can adversely affect the environment, ecosystems and human health. The UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution to accelerate actions to significantly reduce nitrogen waste from all sources, especially through agricultural practices. Sustainable nitrogen management is key to achieving the SDGs.
Nitrogen and the Environment
Nitrogen (N) is an essential nutrient to support life, but if poorly managed, can adversely affect the environment, ecosystems and human health. The global challenge of achieving food security with minimal ecosystem degradation and human health impacts hinges on sustainable N management, which goes beyond farm level and requires concerted efforts from a range of stakeholders.
The discovery a century ago of an industrial process that converted nitrogen in the air to ammonia made the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers possible. This discovery was followed by a spectacular increase in global food production. (UNEP Year Book 2014)
Today nitrogen and other nutrients are used inefficiently in most of the world’s agricultural systems – resulting in enormous and largely unnecessary losses to the environment, with profound impacts ranging from air and water pollution to the undermining of important ecosystems (and the services and livelihoods they support). The employment of nitrogen to boost agriculture production has been proved to be not necessary, as the agricultural yield of countries emitting diverging percentages of nitrogen pollution is not significantly different. Such impacts are often more visible in developed regions than in developing ones. (UNEP Year Book 2014)
Our Nutrient World (Sutton et al. 2013)
The Global Nitrogen Challenge
The UNEP Year Book 2014 emphasized the importance of excess reactive nitrogen in the environment. While few of the solutions identified have been scaled up, nitrogen pollution continues to cause declines in air quality, degradation of terrestrial and aquatic environments, climate change, and ozone depletion. Health, resource management, livelihoods, and economies are all affected by these impacts, hindering progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.
Severe wildfires increase sediment levels in rivers, alter water temperatures, and affect fish abundance. Post-wildfire erosion introduces nutrients and contaminants into water bodies, affecting aquatic species. The release of nitrogen and phosphorus into water bodies can cause eutrophication and reduce dissolved oxygen levels, posing a risk to aquatic organisms. (Frontiers 2022: Noise, Blazes and Mismatches)
Ammonia, nitrate, nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O) and other forms of Nr pollution cause multiple environmental impacts. These losses may occur directly following fertilizer use, as well as through animal manure, human excreta, and other organic wastes. Even though biological nitrogen fixation loses a smaller fraction of nitrogen to the environment than many fertilizers, both sources contribute to nitrogen pollution. The combustion of fossil fuels and biomass releases NO and NO2. Despite major efforts to reduce NOX emissions from vehicles and energy generation, emissions continue to rise in rapidly developing regions. As a result, humans produce a cocktail of reactive nitrogen that threatens health, climate, and ecosystems. (UNEP Frontiers’ 2018/19 Report)
Different forms of nitrogen in the environment | UNEP Frontiers’ 2018/19 Report, page 53
Nitrogen at the UN Environment Assembly
In this context, at the 5th UN Environment Assembly which concluded on 2 March 2022 in Nairobi, Member States adopted a resolution to accelerate actions to significantly reduce nitrogen waste from all sources, especially through agricultural practices, and saving $100 billion annually.
The United Nations Environment Assembly recognizing the need for coherent action to address the multiple global challenges posed by the natural coupling of carbon and nitrogen cycles, and reaffirming the need for enhanced international cooperation for sustainable nitrogen management. – UNEA5 Resolution
Key Elements of the UNEA5 Resolution
The United Nations Environment Assembly,
1. Encourages Member States to accelerate actions to significantly reduce nitrogen waste globally by 2030 and beyond through the improvement of sustainable nitrogen management;
2. Also encourages Member States to share information on national action plans, as available, according to national circumstances;
3. Requests the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme to:
(a) Support Member States, at their request, in the development of national action plans for sustainable nitrogen management, subject to the availability of resources;
(b) Identify possible modalities for the options being considered for improved coordination of policies across the global nitrogen cycle at the national, regional and global levels, including, among other options, for an intergovernmental coordination mechanism for nitrogen policies, as specified in subparagraph (a) of resolution 4/14;
(c) Present to the Committee of Permanent Representatives, at its 159th meeting, to be held in 2022, a briefing on the implementation of resolution 4/14, including on the status of the assessment requested in subparagraph (c) of the resolution, and a road map for further implementation of the resolution in the period leading up to the sixth session of the Environment Assembly;
(d) Invite Member States to nominate focal points to join the United Nations Environment Programme Working Group on Nitrogen;
(e) Report to the Environment Assembly, at its sixth session, on the progress achieved in the implementation of the present resolution and of resolution 4/14.
Nitrogen and Agenda 2030
Nitrogen has been vital to the concept of sustainable development and its guiding principles. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published synthesis statements on nitrogen’s effects on humans and the environment. Recent studies have shown an increase in interest among scientists regarding the global effects of nitrogen on humans and other species. Researchers raised concerns about the dependence of developing countries on nitrogen as well as the lack of knowledge about its impacts and how this leads to social and environmental inequalities.
Despite its relevance to most UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), nitrogen pollution still lacks broad visibility and requires coherent action to address the multiple global challenges and enhance coordinated global governance. Nitrogen plays a central role as:
(1) a key resource to tackle food insecurity and economic development,
(2) a growing socioenvironmental hazard that increases inequalities across species.
By systematically increasing nitrogen compounds, humans are worsening air and water quality, contributing to climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion, and thereby endangering health, biodiversity, and livelihoods. While nitrogen compounds are vital building blocks of life, they are also necessary to produce food and bio-energy. As a result, policy fragmentation can be reduced and solutions to the many problems we know can be accelerated. Sustainable nitrogen management is key to achieving the SDGs.
Nutrient losses from agriculture can be reduced by up to 50% at local, national and global scales by 2030 without compromising food security, using existing farm-level practices and technologies as well as through landscape management. – Science Brief for Target 7 of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework
The UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 examines ways to stop biodiversity loss. Ecosystem services such as pollination and flood prevention are inextricably linked to human well-being, while nitrogen and carbon cycles are impossible without diverse organisms at every stage. Furthermore, nitrogen is also intertwined with Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystems Nexus, as much nitrogen waste from atmospheric deposition and farm inputs finds its way into watercourses, which affects the quality of water, ecology, and coastal fisheries. In each issue, nitrogen has lacked the gravitas needed to catalyze change.
Integrated Sustainable Nitrogen Management
Integrated sustainable nitrogen management offers the opportunity to link the multiple benefits of better nitrogen use from environmental, economic and health perspectives, helping to avoid policy trade-offs while maximizing synergies. By demonstrating the multiple benefits of taking action on nitrogen, a much stronger mobilization for change is expected, catalysing progress towards many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
In 2020, the Guidance document on integrated sustainable nitrogen management was adopted by the Executive Body for the Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. The purpose of the document is to mobilize Parties’ efforts to control pollution from agricultural sources in the context of the wider nitrogen cycle in an integrated manner harvesting multiple cobenefits of improved nitrogen management. The document is in particular aimed to support the implementation of the Convention’s Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone.
Integrated sustainable nitrogen management offers the opportunity to link the multiple benefits of better nitrogen (N) use from environmental, economic and health perspectives, helping to avoid policy trade-offs while maximizing synergies.
By demonstrating the multiple benefits of taking action on nitrogen, a much stronger mobilization for change is expected, catalysing progress towards many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Ten Key Points of Nitrogen Cycling
The description of sustainable nitrogen management is underpinned by ten key points of nitrogen cycling. The fundamental reflections of biogeochemistry must be recognized if human management of the nitrogen cycle is to move from a system emphasizing new production of N compounds and wasteful losses to a more circular system, which maximizes the recovery and reuse of available N resources.
This section describes the key points of N cycling in the biosphere that underpin the N cycle in relation to agricultural practice. These key points provide the starting point from which to consider the principles of sustainable nitrogen management. “Principles” are understood here as “fundamental truths” and/or “wellestablished scientific and practical knowledge” that should be familiar to all practitioners, N managers and policymakers. The key points of nitrogen cycling also represent informing principles:
Key Points of Nitrogen Cycling
1. Nitrogen is essential for life. It is an element of chlorophyll in plants and of amino acids (protein), nucleic acids and adenosine triphosphate in living organisms (including bacteria, plants, animals and humans). Nitrogen is often a limiting factor for plant growth.
2. Excess nitrogen has a range of negative effects, especially on human health, ecosystem services, biodiversity, water and climate change. The total amounts of N introduced into the global biosphere by human activities have significantly increased during the last century (more than doubled) and have now exceeded critical limits for the so-called safe operating space for humanity. The deleterious effects of excess N on human health and biodiversity are most apparent in regions with intensive agriculture, especially intensive animal husbandry, urban areas and in large rivers and coastal areas.
3. Nitrogen exists in multiple forms. Most N forms are “reactive” because they are easily transformed from one form to another through biochemical processes mediated by microorganisms, plants and animals and chemical processes affected by climate.
4. The same atom of N can cause multiple effects in the atmosphere, in terrestrial ecosystems, in freshwater and marine systems, and on human health. This phenomenon is called the “nitrogen cascade”, which has been defined as the sequential transfer of Nr through environmental systems and which results in environmental changes as Nr moves through or is temporarily stored within each system.
5. Nitrogen moves from soil to plants and animals, to air and water bodies, and back again, and from one region to another, as a result of natural drivers and human activities, which have to be understood for effective N management. These flows are a result of natural drivers and human activities, which have to be understood for effective N management.
6. Human activities have greatly altered the natural N cycle and have made the N cycle more leaky. Land-use change, urbanization, the creation of inorganic N fertilizer, and the globalization of food systems are among the most fundamental changes created by human activities. Urbanization and the globalization of food systems have resulted in increased transport of food and feed produced in rural areas and to areas where food and feed are being utilized, especially in urban areas and in areas with livestock. The regional spatial segregation of food and feed production and consumption is also one of the key factors why N use efficiency at whole food system level
has decreased in the world during the last decades.
7. The nature and human alterations of the N cycle challenge the realization of both a circular economy and integrated sustainable N management; policymakers and decision makers from both areas may learn from each other. Sustainable nitrogen management provides the foundation to strengthen an emerging “nitrogen circular economy”, reducing N losses and promoting recovery and reuse.
8. Most of the nitrogen in plants is taken from soil via roots in the form of nitrate (NO3⁻) or ammonium (NH4+), indicating that the NO3⁻ and NH4+ need to be in the vicinity of plant roots and available at the right time to be effective for plant growth. Nitrogen uptake depends on the N demand by the crop, the root length and density, and the availability of NO3– and NH4+ in the soil solution.
9. Some crop types are able to convert non-reactive dinitrogen (N2) from air into reactive N forms (amine, protein) in the plant roots through association with specialist blue green bacteria. This biological N fixation is an important source of reactive N in the biosphere, including agriculture. This process of biological nitrogen fixation is an important source of reactive N in the biosphere including agriculture, and which can also result in N pollution.
10. Humans and animals require protein-N and amino acids for growth, development and functioning, but only a minor fraction of the N is retained in the growing body weight and/or milk and egg. The remainder is excreted, mainly via urine and faeces, and this N can be recycled and reused.
Ten key points of nitrogen cycling | UNECE Guidance document on integrated sustainable nitrogen management, page 14
These key points underpin the principles of integrated sustainable nitrogen management. Humans introduce huge amounts of additional reactive nitrogen into the nitrogen cycle, meaning that the system is now out of balance.
Principles of Integrated Sustainable Nitrogen Management
The Guidance document on integrated sustainable nitrogen management focuses on the agricultural sector, including both cropping and livestock systems. While humans have implicitly engaged in managing nitrogen over many millennia, this has not always been sustainable or integrated. Twenty-four principles of integrated sustainable nitrogen management are identified below:
Principles of Integrated Sustainable Nitrogen Management
(a) Principle 1: The purpose of integrated sustainable nitrogen management in agriculture is to decrease nitrogen losses to the environment to protect human health, climate and ecosystems, while ensuring sufficient food production and nitrogen use efficiency, including through appropriately balanced nitrogen inputs;
(b) Principle 2: There are various actors in agriculture and the food chain, and all have a role in N management. There is a joint responsibility for all actors in the food chain, including for policymakers at several levels, to support a decrease of N losses and to share the cost and benefits of N abatement/mitigation measures;
(c) Principle 3: Specific measures are required to decrease pathway-specific N losses. This is because the loss mechanisms differ between NH3 volatilization, NO3 – leaching, erosion of all Nr forms to surface waters, and gaseous emissions of NOx, N2O and N2 related to nitrification-denitrification processes. Pathway-specific measures relate to pathway-specific controlling factors;
(d) Principle 4: Possible trade-offs in the effects of N loss abatement/mitigation measures may require priorities to be set, for example, which adverse effects should be addressed first. Policy guidance is necessary to inform such priorities and properly weigh the options according to local to global context and impacts;
(e) Principle 5: Nitrogen input control measures influence all N loss pathways. These are attractive measures because reductions in N input (for example, by avoidance of excess fertilizer, of excess protein in animal diets, and of human foods with a high nitrogen footprint), lead to less nitrogen flow throughout the soil-feed-food system;
(f) Principle 6: A measure to reduce one form of pollution leaves more N available in the farming system, so that more is available to meet crop and animal needs. In order to realize the benefit of a measure to reduce N loss (and to avoid pollution swapping), the nitrogen saved by the measure needs to be matched by either reduced N inputs, increased storage, or increased N in harvested outputs. Reduced N inputs or increased harvested outputs are thus an essential part of integrated nitrogen management while providing opportunities for increased economic performance;
(g) Principle 7: The nitrogen input-output balance encapsulates the principle that what goes in must come out, and that N input control and maximization of N storage pools (in manure, soil and plants) are main mechanisms to reduce N losses.
(h) Principle 8: Matching nitrogen inputs to crop needs (also termed “balanced fertilization”) and to livestock needs offers opportunities to reduce all forms of N loss simultaneously, which can help to improve economic performance at the same time. Natural differences between crop and animal systems similarly imply opportunities from integrating animal and crop production and optimizing the balance of food types;
(i) Principle 9: Spatial variations in the vulnerability of agricultural land to N losses require spatially explicit N management measures in a field and/or landscape. This principle is applicable to field application of both organic and inorganic fertilizer resources;
(j) Principle 10: Spatial variations in the sensitivity of natural habitats to N loadings originating from agriculture highlight the need for site- and region-specific N management measures. A source-pathway-receptor approach at landscape scale may help to target specific hot spots, specific N loss pathways, and specific sensitive or resilient areas;
(k) Principle 11: The structure of landscape elements affects the capacity to store and buffer nitrogen flows. This means that ecosystems with high N storage capacity (for example, woodlands and unfertilized agricultural land) tend to buffer the effects of N compounds emitted to the atmosphere, so that less N is transferred to other locations. In this way, woodlands, extensive agricultural land and other landscape features help absorb and utilize N inputs from atmospheric N deposition or N that would otherwise be lost through lateral water flow. This principle is the basis of planning to increase overall landscape resilience, where, for example, planting of new woodland (with the designated function of capturing N) may be used as part of a package of measures to help protect other habitats (including other woodland and ecosystems, where nature conservation objectives are an agreed priority);
(l) Principle 12: In order to minimize pollution associated with N losses, all factors that define, limit and reduce crop growth have to be addressed simultaneously and in balance to optimize crop yield and N use efficiency. Elements include: selecting crop varieties adapted to local climatic and environmental conditions; preparing an appropriate seedbed; ensuring adequate levels of all essential nutrient elements and water; and ensuring proper weed control, pest and disease management and pollution control;
(m) Principle 13: In order to minimize pollution associated with N losses, all factors that define, limit or reduce animal growth and welfare have to be addresses simultaneously and in balance to optimize animal production and N use efficiency, also to decrease N excretion per unit of animal produce. Elements include: selecting breeds adapted to the local climatic and environmental conditions; ensuring availability of highquality feed and water; and ensuring proper disease, health, fertility and pollution control, including animal welfare;
(n) Principle 14: Slowing down hydrolysis of urea and uric acid containing resources reduces NH3 emissions. Hydrolysis of these resources produces NH3 in solution and locally increases soil pH, so slowing hydrolysis helps avoid the highest ammonium concentrations and pH, which can also reduce other N losses by avoiding short-term N surplus;
(o) Principle 15: Reducing the exposure of ammonium-rich resources to the air is fundamental to reducing NH3 emissions. Hence, reducing the surface area, lowering the pH, temperature and wind speed above the emitting surface, and promoting rapid infiltration by dilution of slurries all reduce NH3 emissions;
(p) Principle 16: Slowing down nitrification (the biological oxidation of NH4+ to NO3–) may contribute to decreasing N losses and to increasing N use efficiency. This is because NH4+ can be held in soil more effectively than NO3–, making it less vulnerable to losses via leaching and nitrification-denitrification processes than NO3–;
(q) Principle 17: Some measures aimed at reducing N2O emissions may also reduce losses of N2 (and vice versa) since both are related to denitrification processes. Measures aimed at jointly reducing N2O and N2 losses from nitrification-denitrification may therefore contribute to saving N resources within the system and reducing climate effects at the same time;
(r) Principle 18: Achieving major N2O reductions from agriculture necessitates a focus on improving N use efficiency across the entire agrifood system using all available measures. The requirement for wider system change is because of the modest potential of specific technical measures to reduce N2O emissions from agricultural sources compared with the scale of ambitious reduction targets for climate and stratospheric ozone. It implies a requirement to consider system-wide changes in all aspects of the agrifood system, including human and livestock diets and management of fertilizer, biological and recycled N resources;
(s) Principle 19: Strategies aimed at decreasing N, P and other nutrient losses from agriculture are expected to offer added mitigation benefits compared with single nutrient emission-abatement strategies, because of coupling between nutrient cycles. A nitrogen focus provides a pragmatic approach that encourages links between multiple threats and element cycles, thereby accelerating progress;
(t) Principle 20: Strategies aimed at optimizing N and water use jointly are more effective than single N fertilization and irrigation strategies, especially in semiarid and arid conditions. This underlines the need for an integrated approach in which the availability of both N and water are considered jointly, especially in those regions of the world where food production is limited by the availability of both water and N. The joint coupling of N and water management also underlies the safe storage of solid manures to avoid run-off and leaching;
(u) Principle 21: Strategies aimed at enhancing N use efficiency in crop production and at decreasing N losses from agricultural land have to consider possible changes in soil organic carbon (C) and soil quality over time and the impacts of soil carbon-sequestration strategies. Carbon sequestration is associated with N sequestration in soil due to reasonably conservative ratios of C:N in soils. Protection of soil organic matter against degradation (“nitrogen mining”) is vital to sustain agricultural productivity in regions with low N input;
(v) Principle 22: Strategies aimed at reducing N emissions from animal manures through low-protein animal feeding have to consider the possible impacts of diet manipulations on enteric methane (CH4) emissions from ruminants. Low-protein diets in ruminants are conducive to low N excretion and NH3 volatilization, but tend to increase fibre content and CH4 emissions, pointing to the need for dietary optimization for N and C;
(w) Principle 23: The cost and effectiveness of measures to reduce losses of N need to take account of the practical constraints and opportunities available to farmers in the region where implementation is intended. The effectiveness and costs must be examined as much as possible under practical farm conditions and, in particular, taking account of farm size and basic environmental limitations. Cost-effectiveness analysis should consider implementation barriers, as well as the side effects of practices on other forms of N and greenhouse gases in order to promote co-benefits;
(x) Principle 24: The farm level is often a main integration level for emissionabatement/mitigation decisions, and the overall effects of emissionabatement/mitigation measures will have to be assessed at this level, including consideration of wider landscape, regional and transboundary interactions.
The toolbox for developing integrated approaches to N management contains both tools that are uniformly applicable and more specific tools, suitable for just one dimension of integration. Important common tools are:
(a) Systems analysis, used especially by the science-policy-practice interface;
(b) Nitrogen input-output budgeting tools to integrate N sources and N species for well-defined areas at various scales (from farms to continents) and that are easy for farmers and policymakers to understand (as well as being compatible with data privacy regulations);
(c) Integrated assessment modelling and cost-benefit analyses. The “DriverPressure-State-Impact-Response” (DPSIR) framework can be used as a starting point for analysing cause-effect relationships conceptually and cost-benefit analysis (CBA) goes a step further by expressing costs and benefits of policy measures in monetary terms;
(d) Food-chain assessment and management relates to the planning and management of activities and information between actors in the whole food production–consumption chain, including suppliers, processors, retail, waste-recycling companies and
(e) Stakeholder dialogue and communication are essential for exchanging views of actors on N management issues, which can help make the concepts transparent and facilitate adoption of targets and the implementation of measures in practice;
(f) Abatement/mitigation measures, including best management practices, which have been shown to reduce emissions and impacts, as described in chapters IV-VI of the present document.
Climate regulation, storm protection, food security, nutrient cycling are all provided by the marine environment. From tourism to fisheries, these services support millions of livelihoods. Over 60% of the world’s total gross national product comes from areas within 100 kilometers of the coastline. Human activities and marine pollution continue to cause advanced degradation of oceans, despite their enormous ecological and economic importance. Overall, the impacts from overfishing, coastal hypoxia and eutrophication, invasive aquatic species, coastal habitat loss and ocean acidification cost the global economy at least US$350 billion to US$940 billion every year.
The source-to-sea approach aims at bridging existing gaps by connecting the ecosystems’ management and tackling maritime pollution at the source, upstream. Managing land, freshwater, coastal and marine resources holistically – from source to sea – is critical to protect our oceans, and manage our freshwater as well as land resources sustainably.
The Global Workshop on Source-to-sea Management was organized in December 2022 in Geneva, under the auspices of the Water Convention serviced by UNECE, under the leadership of Estonia and Slovenia, in cooperation with UN Environment Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP MAP), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO), Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), Action Platform for Source-to-Sea Management (S2S Platform), Global Water Partnership (GWP), Global Environment Facility (GEF) and its International Waters Learning Exchange and Resource Network (GEF IW:Learn).
Atlas of global assessments and scenario forecasting on nutrient cycling and environmental impacts, December 2018.
Predicted changes in per-area nutrient fluxes by large river basin and nutrient form globally between years 2000 and 2050. Note especially large anticipated changes in DIN and DIP loading in South Asia and parts of Central and South America. There are substantial differences in the relative contributions of various nutrient sources and human drivers causing the scenario trends between developing countries and industrialized countries. Global NEWS scenarios for 2030 and 2050 indicate that substantial changes in coastal nutrient loading may occur due to changing nutrient management in agriculture.
Global Initiatives and Efforts to Address Nitrogen Pollution
UN System Common Approach to Transitioning Towards a Pollution-free Planet:
At its fourth session in March 2019, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 4) adopted the global Implementation Plan “Towards a Pollution-Free Planet”. The plan reflects UNEA resolution 3/8, which ‘encourages Governments to pursue synergies and co-benefits between national clean air policies and policies in key areas such as transport, including vehicle emissions and fuel standards, urbanization, climate change, energy access and agriculture, and to take advantage of the synergistic effects of efficient nitrogen management on reducing air, marine and water pollution’. Delivering an Implementation Plan that tackles the root causes of pollution requires a UN system-wide, coordinated approach. Among the many UN agencies that are working to contribute to the UN System Common Approach on Pollution, the UN Environment Management Group (EMG) established at its 27th meeting in October 2021, a Consultative Process to provide a framework for collective action in support of the Implementation Plan “Towards a Pollution-Free Planet”.
The UNEA-5 Nitrogen Resolution
The UNEA-5 nitrogen resolution represents a turning point for member states, UNEP, and the scientific community. In addition to countries with too much and too little nitrogen, intensive and agroecological farming may benefit from halving global nitrogen waste since reduced waste enables available nitrogen resources to be used more efficiently.
Establishing the International Nitrogen Management System
The International Nitrogen Management System was launched in 2016 and is led by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology on behalf of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in partnership with the International Nitrogen Initiative. It has been established as a science-led process for policy support across the nitrogen cycle. This project illustrates how sustainable management of the global nitrogen cycle benefits nature and society. Ultimately, global nitrogen governance must move beyond fragmentation of the past. Therefore, coordinated action on nitrogen benefits the environment, health, and economy.
UN Resolutions and Collaborations for Sustainable Nitrogen Management
A partnership between INMS and the South Asian Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP) was formed in 2017 to draft the first UN Resolution on Sustainable Nitrogen Management, adopted by the Fourth UN Environment Assembly in March 2019 (UNEP/EA.4/Res.14). Furthermore, the UNEA5 Resolution on Sustainable Nitrogen Management was developed with support from the GEF/UNEP project “Towards an International Nitrogen Management System”.
UN Global Campaign on Sustainable Nitrogen Management
When the UN Global Campaign on Sustainable Nitrogen Management was launched in October 2019, it accelerated this process. In addition to endorsing the UNEP Road Map for Sustainable Nitrogen Management, the Colombo Declaration agreed to halve nitrogen waste by 2030 through National Nitrogen Action Plans. Now that it has become more widely embraced, the new global goal is assuming a life of its own. In May 2020, the European Commission added a goal to its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies to “reduce nutrient pollution by 50% by 2030”. Additionally, the CBD considered adopting a similar target (CBD/WG2020/2/3).
UN Food Systems Summit 2021
Through the transformation of the agri-food systems, the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit offered an opportunity to address nitrogen challenges. The purpose of the event was to raise awareness about nitrogen challenges and potential technical solutions in agri-food systems. Different stakeholders were able to contribute to achieving sustainable nitrogen management by learning about the multiple roles of nitrogen in agri-food systems.
The Role of Geneva
Organizations are listed in alphabetical order.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Geneva Liaison Office
Nitrogen has been vital to the concept of sustainable development and its guiding principles. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published synthesis statements on nitrogen’s effects on humans and the environment, including nitrogen and protein content measurement and nitrogen to protein conversion factors for dairy and soy protein-based foods: a systematic review and modelling analysis. FAO also provides up to-date statistics on nitrogen fertilizer use and nutrient budget and supports the implementation of the International Code of Conduct for the Sustainable Use and Management of Fertilizers. In July 2019, FAO and WHO convened meeting of JEMNU in Geneva.
International Labour Organization (ILO)
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is devoted to promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights, including workers’ safety and health. To this purpose, ILO raises awareness and promotes solutions to nitrogen-related occupational exposures, which can occur in the manufacturing of civil explosives, rocket fuels, and military ordnance. Fumes of nitrogen oxides are generated in fires in the low-temperature aging of nitrate-containing materials, such as fertilizers (ammonium nitrate) and aged ammunition (ILO, 2022). The ILO has adopted more than 40 standards specifically dealing with occupational safety and health, as well as over 40 Codes of Practice. Nearly half of ILO instruments deal directly or indirectly with occupational safety and health issues.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
In collaboration with the OECD, the IPCC has published several papers on nitrogen. The 2019 Refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories was adopted and accepted during the 49th Session of the IPCC in May 2019. It was prepared by the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories (TFI) in accordance with the decision taken at the 44th Session of IPCC in Bangkok, Thailand, in October 2016.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the leading UN entity on human rights and represents the world’s commitment to the promotion and protection of the full range of human rights and freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The environmental dimension of human rights has been increasingly recognized in the past years, especially with the recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment by the General Assembly. As nitrogen poses threats to the enjoyment of such rights, the mandates of the Special Rapporteurs on human rights and the environment, on toxics and human rights advocate for better solutions to these issues, through reports on the right to a non-toxic environment. For instance, in its Statement at the conclusion of the country visit to Slovenia SP on human rights and the environment David R. Boyd, discussed the importance of diminishing nitrogen dioxide levels as a form of air pollution.
Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)
SAICM is a catalyst, connecting sectors and stakeholders, towards the goal of a chemical-safe, clean and healthy future, and will take great strides by all stakeholders to commit and stay engaged in order to accelerate progress. SAICM will continue to support closing the gap in chemicals management between developed and developing countries, as well as participate in international events that bring together experts in agriculture, soil, and industry to discuss reactive nitrogen compounds.
UNECE Convention on Access to Information (Aarhus Convention)
The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, and its Protocol on PRTRs empower people with the rights to access information, participate in decision-making in environmental matters and to seek justice.
The powerful twin protections provided for the environment and human rights can help address many global challenges: climate change, biodiversity loss, air and water pollution, poverty eradication and security. As a result, governments can engage the public effectively in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (UNECE/CLRTAP)
The Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution establishes a system allowing governments to work together with the aim of protecting health and the environment from air pollution that is liable to affect several countries. The convention was signed in 1979 in Geneva within the framework of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and entered into force in 1983.
The Convention has substantially contributed to the development of international environmental law and has created the essential framework for controlling and reducing the damage to human health and the environment caused by transboundary air pollution.
Key steps include action of the Nitrogen Working Group to establish the Interconvention Nitrogen Coordination Mechanism (INCOM), adoption by several governments of the Colombo Declaration, as well as publication of international Guidance on Integrated Sustainable Nitrogen Management coordinated under the auspices of the Geneva Air Convention. Together with other regional developments, these provided the opportunity for UNEA-5 to make further progress on addressing the nitrogen challenge.
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), agriculture is the largest contributor to ammonia pollution in the world, and also emits other nitrogen compounds. This affects soil quality and thus the very capacity of the soil to sustain plant and animal productivity. Trade in agricultural products has also increased the amount of pollution emitted by the intensification process in producer countries in recent decades.
UNECE’s quality standards guarantee consumers in rural and urban areas a constant supply of food that is safe, healthy, and nutritious. Trade and accessibility of good quality food are prerequisites to sustaining a growing population and coping with environmental and climate challenges.
The International Cooperative Programme on Effects of Air Pollution on Natural Vegetation and Crops assesses the impacts of air pollutants, particularly ground-level ozone, on crops. In addition, the International Cooperative Programme on Assessment and Monitoring of the Effects of Air Pollution on Rivers and Lakes assesses the degree and geographical extent of acidification of surface waters, which might end up in the oceans and affect habitat for fish. In addition, the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen develops technical and scientific information and encourages coordination of air pollution policies on nitrogen in the context of the nitrogen cycle. The International Cooperative Programme on Modelling and Mapping of Critical Levels and Loads and Air Pollution Effects, Risks and Trends monitors nitrogen depositions from atmosphere into European ecosystem.
The Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) especially considers impacts of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia (NH3) emissions in the context of the wider nitrogen cycle, and the South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP) promotes regional co-operation on nitrogen and sustainable development.
United Nations Environment Management Group (EMG)
The United Nations Environment Management Group (EMG), pursuing UNEA4 global Implementation Plan “Towards a Pollution-Free Planet”, (UNEP/EA.4/Res.21), established in 2021 a Consultative Process. Through the establishment of the Consultative Process towards a pollution-free planet, EMG aims to provide an enabling environment for UN bodies, including MEAs, to coordinate policies and action. Sustainable nitrogen management requires such an approach for its cross-cutting nature and coordination of the various actors, MEAs and bodies working on the different angles of the issue. To this end, in April 2023 EMG, together with FAO and UNEP, organized a nexus dialogue on Sustainable Nitrogen Management. The dialogue offered an outlook on nitrogen and its linkages with food systems and the triple planetary crisis and deepened an understanding among EMG members on how to build a system-wide approach to sustainable nitrogen management, bringing different perspectives and strengths of UN entities and looking at synergies and policy coherence.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
UNEP has raised awareness on sustainable nitrogen management through a series on emerging issues relevant to the environment, assessment reports and through the Global Partnership on Nutrients Management (GPNM). In response to the Resolutions on Sustainable Nitrogen Management adopted at UNEA4 and UNEA5, UNEP established a Working Group on Nitrogen. As a result, the international community has been taking major steps forward, especially as catalysed by the UNEP GEF project ‘Towards the International Nitrogen Management System’ (INMS).
UNEP Chemicals and Health Branch
UN Environment’s work on chemicals and waste is led by the Chemicals and Health Branch, which is based in Geneva. The work of UNEP Chemicals and Health Branch has generated a wealth of information, data and knowledge related to chemicals and wastes. To assist countries and stakeholders with meeting various environmental targets and objectives of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, activities were conducted with digital tools developed and data generated:
- to monitor globally the presence of POPs and mercury in humans and in the environment;
- to develop national inventories of POPs and mercury;
- to strengthen knowledge sharing and usage for informed decision-making on environmentally sound management on chemicals and waste; and
- to promote an integrated approach to address pollution and waste towards achieving the sustainable development goals.
UNEP Global Resource Information Database (GRID-Geneva)
The Global Resource Information Database – Geneva (GRID-Geneva), is a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and the University of Geneva (UniGe).
UNEP/GRID has published research assessing selected environmental footprints for Europe based on the concept of planetary boundaries. It explores various approaches for allocating global limits to the European level. Europe currently exceeds its safe operating space for nitrogen cycle. This underlines, amongst others, the importance of sustainable nutrition patterns.
The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) is a unique international legal instrument and intergovernmental platform which aims to ensure the sustainable use of transboundary water resources by facilitating cooperation. Initially negotiated as a regional instrument, it has been opened up for accession to all UN Member States in 2016.
In December 2022, the seventh meeting of the Task Force on Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystems Nexus aims to discuss, plan and provide guidance to the implementation of the activities on water food energy ecosystems nexus, as well as on water allocation, under the programme of work for 2022-2024 of the Water Convention. The UNECE Water Convention is therefore relevant for addressing nitrogen issues.
World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)
The agriculture and food sectors impact several sustainability boundaries, including nitrogen and phosphorous flows, biodiversity loss, water consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. Methane and nitrous oxide (from reactive nitrogen emissions) contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.
To help meet this challenge, the Protein Working Group of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Food and Nature Program will work together with other leading global businesses.
WBCSD brings together companies from the food and agriculture sector to help meet the nutritional needs of a growing global population and stay within planetary boundaries. Its Food & Nature Program develops and disseminates solutions for healthy people and a healthy planet, including Nutrition & Health, Livelihoods & Human Rights, Biodiversity & Ecosystems, Climate Resilience & Greenhouse Gas Mitigation in a dialogue between business and civil society across agriculture and food. In order to ensure sustainable development of rural communities, agricultural production systems must become more resource efficient, support biodiversity, and reduce negative health outcomes.
World Economic Forum (WEF)
In low and middle-income countries, nitrogen dioxide levels were about 1.5 times higher than in high-income countries. At COP26, the World Economic Forum and Clean Air Fund launched the Alliance for Clean Air, the first global private sector initiative to combat air pollution.
Alliance for Clean Air is a business-led group dedicated to measuring and reducing value chain air pollution, investing in innovation, and working with policymakers and peers to make tackling air pollution a social, economic, and climate benefit. In partnership with Accenture and the Clean Air Fund, a new business action toolkit is available for companies interested in learning more about tackling air pollution as part of their climate strategies.
World Health Organization (WHO)
The World Health Organization (WHO) published synthesis statements on nitrogen’s effects on humans and the environment, including the estimation of the population’s outdoor exposure to nitrogen dioxide and ozone and the resulting impacts in Europe and related to Nitrite in Drinking-water in collaboration with the European Centre for Environment and Health (ECEH) with contributions from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
World Trade Organization (WTO)
The World Trade Organization (WTO) as the global trade regulating and monitoring entity, observes the trade of nitrogen under the fertilizers lens through its Trade Monitoring exercise. In a recent document developed in collaboration with FAO, WTO stressed the importance of transparency and communication of trade measures to ‘foster transparency and predictability of trade in agricultural inputs and food’.
- UNEA Mineral Resource Governance Resolution Initiative
- Nitrogen fertilizer releases greenhouse gases throughout its life cycle |
- Nitrogen still a major threat to ecosystems in large parts of Europe | UNECE | 6 April 2023
- Review and revision of empirical critical loads of nitrogen for Europe | German Environment Agency | October 2022
- Sand and Sustainability: 10 Strategic Recommendations to Avert a Crisis | UNEP/GRID-Geneva | 26 April 2022
- Frontiers 2022: Noise, Blazes and Mismatches | UNEP | 17 February 2022
- Mineral Resource Governance and the Global Goals: An agenda for international collaboration | UNEP | January 2022
- Coordination Centre for Effects (CCE) Report 2022
- Guidance document on integrated sustainable nitrogen management | UNECE | April 2021
- The Sustainable Use of Natural Resources: The Governance Challenge | Jennifer Bansard & Mika Schröder | IISD | 15 April 2021
- The nitrogen decade: mobilizing global action on nitrogen to 2030 and beyond | Sutton, M. et al. | One Earth | January 2021
- Global Nitrogen in Sustainable Development: Four Challenges at the Interface of Science and Policy | William San Martín | Life on Land | June 2020
- Global-scale modelling of flows and impacts of nitrogen use: Modelling approaches, Linkages and Scenarios | Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, 2020
- Just Enough Nitrogen | Sutton, M. et al, 2020
- Frontiers 2018/19: Chapter 4. The Nitrogen Fix: From Nitrogen Cycle Pollution to Nitrogen Circular Economy
- UNEP Year Book 2014: emerging issues in our global environment