Too much nitrogen in the environment – what steps are we taking?

How do nitrogen emissions affect the environment and where do they come from?

Nitrogen is essential for life on Earth – for instance, for plant growth. However, excessive inputs of reactive nitrogen, which forms compounds with other substances, are harmful to humans, animals and plants. Nitrogen dioxide, ammonia and particulate matter lead to a deterioration in air quality. Nitrate contaminates groundwater. Inputs into the soil lead to a decline in biodiversity and the eutrophication and acidification of ecosystems. Nitrous oxide causes climatic changes. The consequences are significant and their prevention and minimisation will come at a great cost, both literally and figuratively.

At present, around 1.5 million tonnes of reactive nitrogen are released each year in Germany. Agriculture is responsible for the largest share of nitrogen emissions at 67 percent, followed by the industry and energy sectors with 16 percent and the transport sector with 11 percent. In order to permanently reduce nitrogen emissions into the water, air and soil, changes are needed in key areas of the economy and daily life, including transport, agriculture, energy supply, mobility and our consumption patterns.

In Germany, many measures have already been taken in air quality control, water control and soil protection to reduce nitrogen emissions. For instance, total emissions have been reduced by around 40 percent since 1995. Overall, however, the measures have not yet ensured consistent compliance with the applicable European limit values and environmental quality objectives. This is one of the reasons why Germany is facing EU infringement proceedings and the preliminary stages of such proceedings, called pilot procedures, due to excessive nitrate levels in water bodies and excessive nitrogen oxide and ammonia emissions in the air. The German government wants to take all measures necessary to reliably meet European legal obligations to reduce nitrogen pollution in water and air and consequently avoid paying fines to the EU.

What is the Federal Environment Ministry currently working on?

National total emissions target for nitrogen

The BMUV is currently drawing up a proposal for a national target for total nitrogen emissions and proposals for measures to achieve this target. From an environmental perspective, the aim is to have widespread protection of all ecosystems from high nitrogen inputs in Germany to ensure they will not be adversely affected and enjoy good environmental status. The total emissions target to be set by policymakers will be based on environmental requirements.

How can awareness of the problem be improved?

Information about nitrogen-related pollution is often limited or delayed because of nitrogen's complex and subtle impacts. Because of this, the overall nitrogen problem does not receive adequate attention despite its urgency and far-reaching consequences. The BMUV is working to ensure that the public is better informed about the consequences of high nitrogen emissions and thus create greater awareness of the problem. Every individual should be able to adapt their behaviour.

The German Environment Agency (UBA) published the reactive nitrogen environment atlas (Umweltatlas "Reaktiver Stickstoff") to provide clarification and information on the subject. The well laid-out and informative webpage clearly presents the environmental problem and its various facets.

First Nitrogen Report of the German government “Nitrogen input in the biosphere”

To effectively reduce nitrogen emissions, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) is using the approach of a national nitrogen reduction strategy. This is a systematic policy approach that combines the efforts of all stakeholders in order to understand and solve the problem in its entirety. This also means that all relevant emissions-producing sectors have to do their bit to reduce nitrogen levels. The first Nitrogen Report was adopted on 31 May 2017 to improve awareness of this topic and illustrate the German government’s position. It was drawn up on the initiative and under the lead responsibility of the BMUV.

The German government’s first Nitrogen Report makes clear: "[...] worldwide trends in population growth, increasing consumption levels, high-resource diets, increase in private travel and growing energy requirements due to increasing mechanization and industrialisation [...] lead to growth in nitrogen emissions. [...] Despite all efforts and considerable mitigation successes, emissions continue to be far higher than health and environmental targets at UN, EU and national levels. The German government’s overall goal is to reduce nitrogen emissions to levels that are compatible with the environment and human health. In order to achieve this, the government is using an integrated reduction approach that is geared to targets and requirements agreed at EU and international levels."

Have your say – citizens' dialogue on the nitrogen problem

To support the work on the nitrogen strategy and possible reduction measures, a "citizen participation procedure on the nitrogen problem" was carried out in autumn 2019 with the involvement of 110 citizens across 4 cities. The outcome of the procedure was 16 proposals for nitrogen reduction measures, which were compiled in a citizens' advisory document entitled "Nitrogen: too much of a good thing" (Stickstoff: Zu viel des Guten!). On 12 February 2020, 23 participants presented the document to the Federal Environment Minister.

Expert exchange: world's largest nitrogen conference

The global dimension of the nitrogen problem was the focus of the world's largest conference on nitrogen, the 8th Global Nitrogen Conference of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), which was held in Berlin from 30 May to 3 June 2021. As a renowned network of scientists, the INI organises a conference every three years centred on the latest research findings, policy strategies and measures to reduce nitrogen. The heading of the INI Conference was "Nitrogen and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals" (SDGs), because the achievement of at least 9 of the 17 SDGs also hinges on the sustainable use of nitrogen i.e. good nitrogen management. Participants from 60 countries followed the international conference online. The 2021 INI Conference was organised with the support of the German Environment Agency (UBA) and the BMUV. The final document of the Conference, the Berlin Declaration, summarises the science policy conclusions reached at the Conference.

Nitrogen in the international context

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) pursues an integrated approach to the problem, which takes into account the entire nitrogen cycle: At the fourth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) of UNEP in March 2019, a resolution on sustainable nitrogen management was adopted for the first time, underlining the global need for action. Building on this, another resolution with the same title was adopted at the fifth UN Environment Assembly in March 2022. Progress made on both resolutions will be reported on at UNEA 6 in February 2024.

Furthermore, ambitious global nitrogen targets are currently being negotiated in the process for updating the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The final event in the update process is set to take place from 7 to 19 December 2022 in Montreal, Canada.

The various strategies of the European Commission’s European Green Deal (for example the Zero Pollution Action Plan, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy) contain ambitious nitrogen reduction targets. According to the Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission will "act to reduce nutrient losses by at least 50 percent, while ensuring that there is no deterioration in soil fertility. This will reduce the use of fertilisers by at least 20 percent by 2030."

Last updated: 18.11.2022

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