The road to national nitrogen reduction

Nitrogen pollution: causes and consequences

At national and global levels, ecological boundaries are being overstepped due to the extent and intensity of nitrogen inputs into the environment. This results in serious environmental issues caused by reactive nitrogen compounds in a variety of areas. These include: impacts on air quality caused by nitrogen dioxide, ammonia and the formation of particulate matter; nitrate pollution of groundwater; loss of biodiversity caused by eutrophication (excessive nutrient build-up) and acidification of ecosystems; and, finally, climate change caused by nitrous oxide emissions. These environmental impacts endanger health, hamper quality of life and are associated with high costs for individual businesses and for the economy as a whole. Changes are necessary in key areas of the economy and life, including transport, agriculture, energy and consumption, in order to permanently reduce nitrogen emissions into the water, air and soil.

Raising awareness and taking action

The information the public receives about nitrogen-related pollution is often limited or delayed because of nitrogen's complex and subtle impacts. Because of this, the overall nitrogen issue receives little public attention despite its urgency and far-reaching consequences. The public must be informed about the consequences of excessive nitrogen emissions and be motivated to take action to reduce nitrogen inputs in order to build support for current and future policy measures.

In Germany, many measures have already been taken in air quality control, water control and soil protection in order to reduce nitrogen inputs. In sum, these measures have yet to reduce emissions sufficiently. The reach, stringent implementation and coherence of the various instruments are not yet adequate. This is also one of the reasons that Germany is facing EU infringement proceedings and pilot procedures due to excessive nitrate levels in water bodies and excessive nitrogen oxide and ammonia emissions in the air.

Building blocks of an integrated nitrogen reduction strategy

"Nitrogen input in the biosphere" - First Nitrogen Report of the Federal Government

In order to effectively reduce nitrogen emissions, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) is using the approach of a national nitrogen reduction strategy. This is a systematic policy that takes an integrated strategic approach in order to understand and solve the problem, in its entirety, using the combined efforts of all stakeholders. As a first milestone of developing a nitrogen strategy on 31 May 2017 a detailed summary report on nitrogen emissions was adopted by the German government. It was drawn up on the initiative and under the lead responsibility of the BMU, and built on dialogues with experts, the various levels of government, industry representatives and the public.

The Federal Government's first Nitrogen Report makes it 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.”

Action programme for integrated nitrogen reduction

Based on the Federal Government's first Nitrogen Report, the BMU is currently developing an "Action Programme for Integrated Nitrogen Reduction", which will contain concrete measures and instruments to achieve the goal. To support the work on the action programme and to involve the public, a broad-based "citizen participation procedure on the nitrogen problem" will be carried out in autumn 2019.

In March 2019, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted its first resolution on "Sustainable Nitrogen Management", thus underlining the need for global action.

The global dimension of the nitrogen problem will also be highlighted at the world's largest conference on nitrogen: The eighth Conference of the National Nitrogen Initiative (INI) will take place in Berlin from 3 May 2020. Approximately 500 experts from all over the world will attend. The INI 2020 is hosted by the German Environment Agency (UBA) and the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).