Gaps and opportunities in nitrogen pollution policies around the world

Abstract

Nitrogen pollution is an important environmental issue gaining traction in policy circles. However, there is little understanding of current nitrogen policies around the world: whether they account for nitrogen’s unique ability to exacerbate multiple environmental impacts or balance nitrogen’s dual role as an essential agricultural input and major pollutant. Here we assemble and analyse the first database of nitrogen policies generated by national and regional legislatures and government agencies, a collection of 2,726 policies across 186 countries derived from the ECOLEX database. The database covers all major environmental sinks (such as air, water and climate), economic sectors (including agriculture, wastewater and industry) and policy instruments (from market mechanisms to regulatory standards). We find that sink-centred policies are focused predominantly on water, mirroring the distribution of nitrogen’s global environmental and human health costs. However, policy integration across sinks is severely lacking, which heightens the risk of substituting one form of nitrogen pollution for another. Moreover, two-thirds of agricultural policies (ranging from broad sectoral programmes to nitrogen-specific measures) incentivize nitrogen use or manage its commerce, demonstrating the primacy of food production over environmental concerns.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of core N policies and N pollution impacts according to environmental sink.
Fig. 2: Distribution of N policies by sector and breakdown of agricultural policy types.
Fig. 3: Agricultural N policies by category and region.

Data availability

A preliminary version of the nitrogen policy database developed and described in this paper can be accessed here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1hOfl5Np80oC4EXrNMi7emnhx3RByRFSvOfEr9f2GJC4/edit?usp=sharing. A more user-friendly version will soon be made available via the www.inms.international website. The original database used to compile our nitrogen database is ECOLEX, which can be accessed at www.ecolex.org.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge funding from the International Nitrogen Management System, which is itself funded by the Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Environment Programme.

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D.R.K. conceived and led the project, analysed and interpreted the data and led drafting of the paper. O.C., O.N. and M.R. analysed and interpreted the data and contributed to the drafting of the paper. W.W. interpreted the data and contributed to the drafting of the paper.

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Correspondence to David R. Kanter.

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Kanter, D.R., Chodos, O., Nordland, O. et al. Gaps and opportunities in nitrogen pollution policies around the world. Nat Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0577-7

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