Why South Asia Needs to Tackle a Surge in Nitrogen Pollution

Human Wrongs Watch

28 May 2021 (UNEP)* — Nitrogen is a double-edged sword. The element is a key component in fertilizers and helps fuel the growth of essential crops like wheat and maize. But too much nitrogen can pollute the air, decimate soils and create lifeless “dead zones” in the ocean.


Reuters/Fayaz Aziz / 27 May 2021

To counter those threats, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is coordinating a global drive to manage nitrogen more sustainably.

Ahead of the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration on 5 June, UNEP is hosting a webinar to explore how nitrogen management can help revive natural spaces while combating hunger, improving human health and tackling climate change.

Tariq Aziz from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, in Pakistan is a leading expert on nitrogen use in farming. He is also a lead partner of the South Asia Nitrogen Hub, which supports the sustainable use of nitrogen in eight countries.

We talked to him about his work with the hub, ecosystem restoration, and his new book on nitrogen.

UNEP: What does the South Asia Nitrogen Hub do?

Tariq Aziz (TA): We are conducting research on how to improve nitrogen management in agriculture, save money on fertilizers and make better use of manure, urine and natural nitrogen fixation processes. The hub highlights options for more profitable and cleaner farming in South Asia.

UNEP, the South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme and South Asian governments will share the most promising solutions to promote practical action.

This is in line with the UNEP-facilitated Colombo Declaration, which aims to halve nitrogen waste from all sources as part of national action plans by 2030, offering global savings worth $100 billion per year.

UNEP: What is the hub’s impact on policy?

TA: We are analysing current policies on nitrogen management in South Asian countries. Through research into policy, agriculture, ecosystems, technology and more, the hub aims to help reduce nitrogen pollution and its impacts across South Asia for the benefit of the economy, the environment and humanity. 

In addition, we are working to spread awareness about nitrogen management and pollution through courses in six languages for farmers, students, early-career researchers, NGOs and policymakers.

Husband and wife farmers in Bangladesh
Husband and wife farmers in Bangladesh. Too much fertilizer can damage the environment and human health. Photo: UNDP-Bangladesh

UNEP: What is the nitrogen situation in Pakistan?

TA: Nitrogen use in Pakistan, and the whole of South Asia, has grown exponentially over the past four decades. However, nitrogen use efficiency has declined from 67 to 30 per cent during this period, leaving a huge amount of surplus nitrogen available for release to the atmosphere.

Nitrogen emissions, such as nitrogen oxides and ammonia, due to fossil fuel burning and agricultural activities are a barrier to ecosystem restoration.

Though Pakistan’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is negligible – about 0.3 per cent – it is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

In December 2019, Pakistan established an Ecosystem Restoration Fund to support nature-based solutions to climate change and facilitate the transition towards environmentally resilient, ecologically targeted initiatives covering afforestation and biodiversity conservation. The prime minister’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami project is also gaining global recognition.

UNEP: With COVID-19 raging in South Asia, where a quarter of the world’s population lives, air pollution is a pertinent issue. Is the hub doing any research on the air pollution effects of nitrogen on ecosystems or humans?

TA: Air pollution has long been a major public health threat in South Asia as it is among the world’s regions most exposed to household air pollution.

Medical experts place vulnerabilities related to respiratory ailments such as asthma and chronic lung disease high on the list of pre-existing conditions that can make people more susceptible to COVID-19.

Nitrogen use in Pakistan, and the whole of South Asia, has grown exponentially over the past four decades. 

Tariq Aziz, researcher

Ammonia volatilization and nitrous oxide emissions from the agriculture sector are major causes of air pollution, with serious impacts on ecosystem and human health. The hub is working to develop an air quality network to measure atmospheric nitrogen concentrations.

We are also aiming to build an integrated framework to look at nitrogen flows between land, water and the atmosphere across the region. We are investigating the impact of nitrogen pollution on corals and lichens.

At the same time, the hub is considering how nitrogen pollution could be turned back into fertilizer, for example by capturing nitrogen oxide gas from factories and converting it into nitrate.

UNEP: Tell us about your new book, Nitrogen Assessment: Pakistan as a case study.

TA: The book is a team effort by hub members at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad and authors from various organizations in Pakistan and abroad. It is the first comprehensive assessment of nitrogen use in Pakistan. It serves as a reference for researchers in Pakistan and provides important insights for other geographic regions.

The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Decade is designed to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.

The UN Decade will draw together political support, scientific research and finance to scale up restoration with the goal of reviving millions of hectares of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Explore UNEP’s work on preserving ecosystems, including forest restoration, blue carbon ecosystemspeatlandscoral reefs. Find out more on the UN Decade of Restoration here.

The Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) is a response to the global nutrient challenge – how to reduce the amount of excess nutrients in the global environment consistent with global development.

GPNM provides a platform for governments, UN agencies, scientists and the private sector to forge a common agenda, mainstreaming best practices and integrated assessments so that policymaking and investments are effectively nutrient-proofed. Join the GPNM

The International Nitrogen Management System (INMS) is a global science support system for international nitrogen policy development supported through the Global Environment Facility through UNEP in cooperation with the International Nitrogen Initiative. INMS provides a cross-cutting contribution to multiple programmes and intergovernmental conventions relevant to the nitrogen challenge.


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