Scientists shine a spotlight on the overlooked menace of nitrogen

December 5, 2016 - A new, USD $60 million global initiative launched at the International Nitrogen Initiative Conference in Melbourne, Australia, aims to spearhead integrated management of the nitrogen cycle for clean water and air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and better soil and biodiversity protection.

Almost 80% of the air we breathe is made of nitrogen in the form of unreactive N2. This gas stabilizes the atmosphere by ensuring that the oxygen is limited to a safe amount to sustain life on earth. However, since the industrial revolution, reactive nitrogen has been entering into the atmosphere as a by-product of burning fossil fuels and has been discharged into the earth as nitrogen fertilizer.

Human driven flows of reactive nitrogen, which can form dangerous chemical compounds in air, water and soil, have increased more than ten times over the past 150 years, severely impacting human health. Excess nitrogen-based nutrients has also affected our planet's biodiversity.

UN Environment and the International Nitrogen Initiative, with funding through the Global Environment Facility, are launching the International Nitrogen Management System today through a funded project called "Towards INMS". It will develop the evidence base to showcase the need for effective practices for global nitrogen management and highlight options to maximize the multiple benefits of better nitrogen use. The initiative brings together the science community, the private sector and civil society and will gather and synthesize evidence that can support international policy development.

"This initiative is a big opportunity to pull together a global and critical mass of science on the nitrogen cycle. We can start a sustained process that gets science, governments, businesses and civil society working together to build common understanding, and therefore deliver real change," said Erik Solheim, Executive Director, UN Environment.

"The investment demonstrates that we are serious in getting to grips with the world's nitrogen cycle. One of the aims of INMS is to show how management of the global nitrogen cycle will deliver measurable benefits for oceans, climate, the atmosphere and land ecosystems. By joining up in this way, we will develop a much stronger foundation for action."

This unique global nitrogen project reflects the critical need to build the 'gravity of common cause' across the nitrogen cycle. For this to happen the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment, along with the science community and the private sector, have come together to demonstrate the multiple benefits that a science to policy approach would bring.

"The earth's vital nitrogen cycle is undergoing unprecedented change - part of a broader pattern of unsustainable pressure on our global commons such as the climate system, forests, water, land and oceans," said Naoko Ishii, GEF CEO and Chairperson. "Today, excess nitrogen is poisoning important lakes and oceans, and it's important that we bring all players to the table to address this issue."

Nitrogen fertilizers sustain half the human population alive today, yet few realize its effect on the environment. From better water treatment to smart farming practices, the scientific guidance of INMS is expected to have major benefits.

The 'Towards INMS' project will enable improved full-chain nitrogen use efficiency; tools to quantify co-benefits of nitrogen management; regional case studies to showcase improved practices and provide investment options; and scientific evidence.

Towards INMS is a USD $60 million project funded through the International Waters Focal Area of the Global Environment Facility, with major cofinancing from the project partners, and implemented by UN Environment. It is executed through the UK's Natural Environment Research Council, and its' Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, on behalf of the International Nitrogen Initiative.

Professor Mark Sutton, from the Centre of Ecology & Hydrology and Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) said, "Nitrogen pollution represents a huge waste of a valuable resource. In the EU alone, the fertilizer value of nitrogen losses from agriculture is around Euro 14 billion per year. This is equivalent to losing 25% of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget (or 10% of the entire EU budget) up in smoke or down the drain."

Dr Cameron Gourley from Agriculture Victoria and Secretary of the International Nitrogen Initiative Conference being held in Melbourne said, "Nitrogen is essential for global and local food production and economic development. This kind of international collaboration is critical for us to find the right balance between food security well as taking responsibility for our environmental footprint."


Project details can be found at

Visit the website at

For more information and to arrange interviews, please contact:

Arpad Maksay, Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources - AgricultureVictoria (Melbourne, Australia), +61 428 945 243,

UNEP Newsdesk (Nairobi, Kenya), +254 715 876 185,

Laura Fuller, UN Environment (Washington, D.C.), +1 202 974 1305,

Barnaby Smith, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (Wallingford, UK) +44 7920 295384,

Patrizia Cocca, Global Environment Facility (GEF), (Washington, D.C.), +1 (202) 458 0234,


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