“Our Nutrient World”: New report for UNEP highlights the problems of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and proposes a global aspirational goal “20:20 for 2020” worth 170 billion US dollars per year.
A new report commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights how humans have massively altered global cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients. While this had huge benefits for world food and energy production, it has also created a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health, causing toxic algal blooms, killing fish, threatening senstive ecosystems and contributiong to climate warming.
The interconnected nature nitrogen and phosphorus cycles points to the idea of the “Nutrient Nexus”, where better management of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles contributes to addressing multiple global challenges. The key pollution sources include agriculture and combustion of fossil fuels: globally around 80% of harvested nitrogen and phosphorus is consumed by livestock rather than people, showing how global nutrient supply and pollution is dominated by humans’ choice to consume animal products.
The report proposes a package of 10 key actions to reduce these pollution threats, and makes recommendations for shared action by goverments, business and citizens. Key points include:
- Actions that improve the management of nutrients in agriculture, including crops, livestock and manure management. Measures include a range of techiniques where are already available, but typically not yet applied, including precision agricultural methods suitable for both developed and developing countries. One example already being used in Bangladesh is to ‘plant’ large fertilizer pellets like seeds into the ground, preventing its emission into into the air.
- Actions to reduce nutrient losses from industry and waste water treatment, including the recycling of available resources. A long-term ambition is identified to develop methods to recapture nitrogen oxides from combustion sources, which alone represents a lost resource worth around $42.5 billion per year.
- Actions to improve local optimization of nutrient flows, connecting arable and livestock farming to improve nutrient recycling opportunities.
- Actions to moderate human consumption of animal products, avoiding over consumption and voluntary reduction. With rapidly increasing meat and dairy consumption in Asia and Latin America aspiring to European and North American norms, our diet choices have the potential to influence substantially future levels of global nutrient pollution.
The report highlights how substantial progress has been made in some countries to reducing emissions from combustion sources and waste water treatment. By comparison, much less progress has been made in reducing emissions from agriculture and regarding citizens own choices. The relationships highlight the importance of working with key ‘cluster points’ in nutrient chains where a few key actors influence substantial control (e.g. local leaders, supermarkets, governments).
More information about the publication and ways to obtain it can be found here: Our Nutrient World