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