`We can man­age ni­tro­gen; it's up to gov­ern­ments to adopt pol­icy'

Down to Earth - - ANALYSIS -

Mark A Sut­ton is the lead au­thor of "Our Nu­tri­ent World", a 2013 re­port of the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme on nutri­tion and ni­tro­gen pol­lu­tion. He tells Shreeshan Venkatesh that con­sump­tion pat­terns have to be kept in mind while im­prov­ing ni­tro­gen ef­fi­ciency. Ex­cerpts from the in­ter­view

How is ni­tro­gen pol­lu­tion dif­fer­ent from car­bon emis­sion? The at­ten­tion to car­bon is with re­gard to cli­mate change. Bi­ol­ogy and life have other im­por­tant el­e­ments. Amino acids, DNA and pro­teins are all ni­tro­gen com­pounds cen­tral to life, and we need these to grow food. But in re­cent years, too much ni­tro­gen has been used. A lot of it is leak­ing into our en­vi­ron­ment and has dis­turbed eco­log­i­cal and

green­house gas bal­ance. Con­sid­er­ing that we have ex­ceeded lim­its for ni­tro­gen pol­lu­tion, how far can ef­fi­ciency in­crease go in mit­i­gat­ing the threats?

If we only fo­cus on ef­fi­ciency we will run into trou­ble be­cause of what econ­o­mists call the re­bound ef­fect—ef­fi­ciency in­creases and brings down costs, which in turn in­creases the de­mand and con­sump- tion. It is im­por­tant to think about suf­fi­ciency and con­sump­tion pat­terns. In Europe, 85 per cent of the ni­tro­gen in agri­cul­ture is used to feed live­stock while only 15 per cent is con­sumed by peo­ple. We found that if Euro­peans were to halve their meat and dairy con­sump­tion, it would trans­late to a 40 per cent re­duc­tion in ni­tro­gen pol­lu­tion across Europe. But this is a very am­bi­tious tar­get.

How do gov­ern­ments fac­tor into the equa­tion? The hot topic in Europe to­day is re­duc­tion of nitroge­nous emis­sions through agri­cul­ture, but very lit­tle progress has been made. At the global level, we are de­vel­op­ing the In­ter­na­tional Ni­tro­gen Man­age­ment Sys­tem, which will sup­port pol­icy de­vel­op­ment and pro­vide sci­en­tific as­sis­tance. We are also en­gag- ing with the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme and var­i­ous in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal bod­ies. Sci­en­tists are get­ting or­gan­ised to de­liver the science. Now gov­ern­ments have to get or­gan­ised and work out how to im­ple­ment ni­tro­gen-rel­e­vant poli­cies.

Do you see that hap­pen­ing any­time soon? It's a step-by-step process. At a 2012 in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal meet­ing in Manila, many coun­tries pushed to im­ple­ment 20 per cent im­prove­ment in ni­tro­gen ef­fi­ciency. No agree­ment was reached. The ques­tion is whether we are ready to reach an agree­ment in 2016 or 2017. We will be there to de­liver the science, be­yond that it would be the gov­ern­ments' call. For com­plete in­ter­view, log on to www.down­toearth.org.in

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