Nitrogen (N) is a naturally abundant element and forms nearly 80% of the Earth’s atmosphere as the inert gas di-nitrogen (N2), indeed being primarily responsible for the sky appearing blue. However, reactive nitrogen compounds (Nr) – chemically active forms of nitrogen that interact with the environment and support plant growth – are typically scarce in the natural environment. Since the 1960s, human use of synthetic Nr fertilizers has increased 9-fold globally and a further substantial increase of around 40-50% is expected over the next 40 years based on current trends (Full Report (FR) Section 1.1). Together with increased fossil fuel combustion, humans have now created excess Nr pollution that spans all environmental compartments with multiple threats, to the extent that the disruption of the natural nitrogen cycle is now one of the greatest global threats to the environment of the 21st century.
The report shows that tackling nitrogen pollution by tightening the nitrogen cycle will have multiple benefits across the environmental, economic and social pillars of sustainable development. These include meeting key Sustainable Development Goals of supplying the food needs of the world, while tackling the climate crisis and reversing the loss of nature, while also protecting human health, the ozone layer and ecosystems through improved air and water quality.
To obtain these multiple benefits, while avoiding trade-offs, the report recommends a full-cycle and integrated approach to quantifying nitrogen use and losses, including transboundary imports and exports embedded in food, feed and fertilizer, as well as transboundary pollution via air and water.
The report shows that we can achieve change holistically, rather than unintentionally shifting problems from one form of pollution to another, or, geographically by importing goods and inputs produced to lower environmental standards.
The report is divided into three sections:
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