Reactive nitrogen, let loose, can be more evil than carbon

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Given the inter-links between climate change, biodiversity and desertification (and wetlands too), some people are  addressing cross-cutting issues.  One such issue discussed today at a side-event at COP-11 this (18 Oct)  evening is the need for global, regional and national assessments of nitrogen.

Since 1960s, human use of nitrogen fertilisers has increased nine-fold globally, while use of phosphorus has tripled, according to estimates. One’s first thought would be that an element that makes up 78% of the earth’s atmosphere could not be that bad. But this nitrogen is in unusable form and can support plant growth only when converted into a reactive form.

Excessive and inefficient fertiliser use could lead to nitrogen burden in air, water and land. Photo credit: Fenrisulfir, Wikipedia

The reactive form of nitrogen , when let loose, is estimated to have 300 times more warming potential than carbon, says Nandula Raghuram, from the Indian nitrogen group. It is mainly released from fertilisers, but also vehicles, thermal power plants, wastewater treatment plants; and run-off from lawns.  Besides causing air, water and land pollution and degradation; and affects biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The international nitrogen initiative (INI), UNEP and some national initiatives such as the Indian nitrogen initiative are making assessments of nitrogen and stress the importance of improved management of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; reduce nutrient losses; and improve overall efficiency of nitrogen use.

A 2011 European nitrogen assessment , for example, shows that a 20% improvement in nitrogen efficiency could save 20 million tons of nitrogen, which equates to improvement in human health, climate and biodiversity of the order of US 100 billion each year.

The nitrogen issue seems to have caught the attention of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and CBD secretariat too, though the CBD meeting itself did not address it. There was also broad agreement at the side-event on the need for detailed scientific reviews of nitrogen use and cycling; an inter-governmental process to improve nitrogen use; and the need to take the nitrogen issue “out of the scientific realm into the policy realm,” as one participant put it.

Raghuram believes that “the next war will be the nitrogen war, after the present carbon war”. And the Indian scientific community and industry should be better prepared with their nitrogen data and policy than they have been on the carbon front.


This blog post is part of our coverage on COP 11 Convention on Biological Diversity — which takes place 8–19 October 2012. 

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