Wednesday, October 23, 2019 Launch of the UN Global Campaign on Sustainable Nitrogen Management
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Hon. Karu Jayasuriya, Speaker of the Parliament, Sri Lanka

Hon. Patali Champika Ranawaka, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development, Sri Lanka 

Hon. Ravi Karunanayake, Minister of Power, Energy and Business Development, Sri Lanka 

Hon. Ajith Mannapperuma, State Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, Sri Lanka

Excellencies, guests, colleagues, partners. Ladies and gentlemen.

It is such an honor to be here today in beautiful Colombo. I am inspired by the leadership that the Sri Lankan government and His Excellency President Maithripala Sirisena have shown in spearheading the campaign to tackle the world’s nitrogen problem. We were also honored that His Excellency attended the UN Environment Assembly, a strong indication of your country’s commitment to multilateralism for the environment.

The world faces so many environmental crises. Climate change is rapidly heating the planet. The last five summers have been the hottest on record, triggering supercharged hurricanes, deadly heatwaves and wildfires so big they create their own weather systems.  Air pollution, mainly from burning fossil fuels, kills 7 million people prematurely every year.  And land degradation is harming the well-being of two fifths of humankind while destroying biodiversity at an alarming rate.  To add to this list, I’d like to discuss another major threat – nitrogen. The bad news is that the nitrogen problem has so far received little attention outside scientific circles. The good news is that in addressing it we can significantly roll back the damage from the three challenges I have just touched on – climate change, air pollution and land degradation.

Why does nitrogen matter so much? As a microbiologist, I am extremely interested in the role nitrogen plays on our planet. Without nitrogen there would be no life on earth – no chlorophyll, no haemoglobin, no plants or animals. Carbon provides the basic skeleton of organic matter but nitrogen allows that matter to take on different forms and roles. Amino acids, proteins, DNA – all of them are nitrogen compounds. It is in our blood and the air we breathe. It is why the sky is blue and the atmosphere is stable. Like the microbes I studied, nitrogen is everywhere and yet invisible.

Humanity’s very existence depends on nitrogen. Over time, we have learned how to harness its power. Pulling nitrogen from the air and fixing it in soil is one reason why the human population has expanded so rapidly. The huge increase in food production during the Green Revolution would not have been possible without nitrogen fertilizer. Yet its usefulness has come at a terrible cost. Our failure to use nitrogen efficiently is polluting the land, air and water.

The nitrogen compounds released when we burn fossil fuels are responsible for as much as 50 percent of the deadliest type of air pollution, the tiny particles that lodge deep inside our lungs. When we burn fossil fuels we also release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This doesn’t just heat up the world faster; it is also the main cause of ozone depletion.

Roughly 80 percent of the synthetic nitrogen we use as fertiliser to grow food goes to waste. Much of this wasted nitrogen leaks into our rivers, lakes and seas, feeding algal blooms that deplete oxygen and destroy life. These “dead zones” have quadrupled in size since 1950[1]. The largest, in the Baltic Sea, can reach 70,000 km2 – an area almost twice the size of Denmark[2]. We also need to be very clear about the impact of the nitrogen challenge on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals because whether its land, food security, biodiversity, pollution or water quality, nitrogen impacts each and every one of them.

Part of the problem is a lack of awareness among policymakers and the public. That’s why the campaign we are here to launch today is so crucial. If we are going to raise nitrogen up on the agenda then we need to sound the alarm loud and clear.

Once we have grabbed the world’s attention there is so much that can be done. And there are promising signs that some nations are already starting to wake up to the problem. The EU’s plan for a circular economy aims to recycle bio-nutrients like nitrogen back into its economy. India has called on farmers to halve fertilizer use by 2020. And China wants to halt growth in synthetic fertilizers by next year without reducing food production.

Part of the power of the Colombo declaration that I sincerely hope we can agree on today is that it sets an ambitious target to halve nitrogen waste by 2030. This would lead to immediate benefits in the fight against climate change, biodiversity loss and air pollution. It would also lead to US$100 billion in savings and foster innovation in sectors like farming, energy and transport.

To achieve this target we will need to improve the performance of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, increase the use of organic fertilizers, and boost the recycling of nutrients from agriculture. Reducing consumption of meat and dairy and dramatically cutting the amount of food we waste would also lower the nitrogen needs of the agricultural sector.

Policymakers will need to begin by discussing which approaches are the most agile, efficient and cost effective. They will need to work together to build a coherent policy framework that addresses every stage of the nitrogen cycle. And they will need to draw up legislation that addresses the transboundary impacts of reactive nitrogen.

But we can’t begin the conversation about solutions until someone starts talking. That’s why we’re here today. We’re here because we believe that it is critical to raise the alarm about one of the most hidden environmental catastrophes of our time. We must pull back the curtain and move the world to action. Today marks the start of that journey. And as we embark on it we must remember what kind of world we are fighting for: a world with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, a world where climate change no longer poses an existential threat, where life in our oceans is no longer starved of oxygen. This is the world we want. And it is the world our children deserve.

 

Joyce Msuya

Deputy Executive Director

 

[1] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6371/eaam7240

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/05/baltic-sea-oxygen-levels-at-1500-year-low-due-to-human-activity

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