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World Environment Day celebrations highlight nitrogen pollution, including work under the UNECE Air Convention

Ever heard of nitrogen pollution as one of the major problems of our times? The answer is probably no. While everyone knows about climate change and carbon footprints, few people are aware of nitrogen pollution, the nitrogen cycle and the impacts of its imbalance.

Indeed, nitrogen pollution remains a major unresolved challenge, not only in the UNECE region, but globally. Over the past 100 years, humans have massively altered flows of nitrogen on our planet, leading to both benefits for food production and multiple threats to our health and the environment. The use of fertilizers and manure for agriculture, and exhaust from transport all lead to losses of nitrogen to the environment, through run-off and leaching or emissions to air. The dire consequences: Air, soil and water pollution that damages human health, threatens biodiversity of forests and rivers, and leads to coastal and marine pollution that exacerbates the effects of climate change. The problem is indeed not a small one: in some European countries, over 40 per cent of air pollution-related mortality can be attributed to emissions of nitrogen compounds from agriculture.

To raise awareness of the issue, nitrogen pollution was discussed during a high-level dialogue on “Nitrogen: Joining up for a Cleaner Environment” during the World Environment Day celebrations in New Delhi, India. World Environment Day, celebrated annually on 5 June, is the principal vehicle of the United Nations for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the environment. During the event, the Co-Chair of the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention) discussed the achievements of the Convention in reducing nitrogen emissions in the UNECE region through legally binding emission reduction targets. He also highlighted remaining challenges, especially when it comes to agricultural emissions. Among other conclusions, it was acknowledged that the collective knowledge of the Convention and the lessons learned in the UNECE region can help other regions in finding their regional solutions to the problem of nitrogen pollution.

Map showing estimated net anthropogenic nitrogen inputs according to the world’s main river catchments.

Source: Sutton M.A. et al., (2013), Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. Global Overview of Nutrient Management. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh on behalf of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management and the International Nitrogen Initiative.