Front cover of Frontiers 2018/19 from UN Environment

Nitrogen pollution is identified as one of the five most significant emerging issues on the environment in the latest Frontiers report from UN Environment, published today (4 March 2019). The report explores those issues that will have profound effects on society, economy and ecosystems and highlights nitrogen as one of the most important pollution issues facing humanity.

Professor Mark Sutton of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and colleagues from the International Nitrogen Management System, have contributed a chapter on the challenges of widespread nitrogen pollution. More optimistically, they also highlight how a holistic approach to the global challenge of nitrogen management is beginning to emerge.

Nitrogen is essential for life, and an extremely abundant element in the Earth’s atmosphere. In the form of the N2 molecule, nitrogen is harmless, making up 78 per cent of every breath we take.

Growing demand on the livestock, agriculture, transport, industry and energy sector has led to a sharp growth of the levels of reactive nitrogen – ammonia, nitrate, nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O) – in our ecosystems.

Excess nitrogen pollution has tremendous consequences on humans and the environment. In the form of nitrous oxide, for example, it is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, in addition to the effects of various nitrogen compounds on air quality and the ozone layer.

"Humans are producing a cocktail of reactive nitrogen that threatens health, climate and ecosystems..." UN Environment Frontiers report

"Altogether, humans are producing a cocktail of reactive nitrogen that threatens health, climate and ecosystems, making nitrogen one of the most important pollution issues facing humanity,” the report warns. “Yet the scale of the problem remains largely unknown and unacknowledged outside scientific circles."

Prof Mark Sutton of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said, "It is wonderful that UN Environment has selected our chapter on the nitrogen challenge to lead the emerging issues identified in the 2018/2019 Frontiers report.

“Through the International Nitrogen Management System we are working with UN Environment to provide a coordinated Science support across the nitrogen cycle for the first time."

Prof Sutton is attending meetings in Nairobi, Kenya, where the report was launched, ahead of next week’s UN Environment Assembly. He added, "There is a real buzz about the discussions here in Nairobi as countries and major groups work out their positions on several resolutions for agreement next week. One of these is a draft resolution on Sustainable Nitrogen Management."

Other key topics highlighted in the Frontiers 2018/19 report are synthetic biology, ecosystem connectivity, thawing permafrost peatlands, and maladaptation to climate change.

"The issues examined in Frontiers should serve as a reminder that, whenever we interfere with nature – whether at the global scale or the molecular level – we risk creating long-lasting impacts on our planetary home," Joyce Musya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment writes in the report. "But by acting with foresight and by working together, we can stay ahead of these issues and craft solutions that will serve us all, for generations to come."

Additional information

Frontiers 2018/19: Emerging issues of environmental concern | UN Environment

UN Environment issued a press release about Frontiers 2018/19

Lead authors of the chapter entitled “The Nitrogen Fix: From nitrogen cycle pollution to nitrogen circular economy”:

  • Mark Sutton, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK
  • Nandula Raghuram, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, India
  • Tapan Kumar Adhya, Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India

All three authors are leading partners of the International Nitrogen Management System and the UKRI GCRF South Asian Nitrogen Hub.

Staff page of Professor Mark Sutton, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Additionally, Clare Howard of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology was one of the contributors and reviewers for the chapter

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