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UNECE joins international initiative to reduce nitrogen pollution

The use of nitrogen fertilizers and the combustion of fossil fuels have led to a doubling of the flow of nitrogen compounds around the world in the past 100 years. Nitrogen (N) is important for plant growth and sufficient amounts are needed for plants to achieve optimum crop yields. However, about 80 per cent of nitrogen is lost from agriculture through leaching and run-off of nitrate or organic nitrogen and gaseous emissions to air. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions, mainly from transport, also contribute to an overload of nitrogen compounds in the environment.

The nitrogen that is lost to the environment has severe impacts on soils, air, freshwaters and biodiversity, as well as on human health by contributing to the formation of hazardous fine particulate matter.

While the world’s carbon cycle has received a lot of attention through climate change, public awareness about the world’s nitrogen cycle and the impacts of its imbalance is still low. It has been suggested that the world’s planetary boundaries for interference with the nitrogen cycle have already been surpassed. Through the implementation of the UNECE Conventions on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention) nitrogen oxide emissions now stand at 40 per cent less than their 1990 levels. However, there is still more to be done. It is thus time to act on nitrogen pollution.

To improve our understanding of nitrogen flows in the environment and their impacts, UNECE recently joined efforts in a new multi-stakeholder project led by the International Nitrogen Initiative. At the kick-off meeting held in Lisbon on 27 and 28 April 2015, partners from several countries, international organizations and academic institutions discussed the next steps for the project, which is to be financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The project will provide guidelines to improve the nitrogen management at the global and regional levels contributing to the establishment of an International Nitrogen Management System. Demonstration activities will cover transboundary basins around the world, including the Black Sea basin. Here, the work of partners will build on the experience of the Air Convention and on the UNECE Convention on Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention)