Media Center / Action on Nitrogen vital for efforts across the Sustainable Development Goals

Action on Nitrogen vital for efforts across the Sustainable Development Goals

Posted on: 27 / 04 / 2021

UN Sri Lanka Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy speaking at the ‘Nitrogen for Climate and Green Recovery’ event organised by the British High Commission in Colombo noted the importance of action on nitrogen for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Excerpts of her speech are below:

Let me begin by thanking the British High Commissioner in Colombo and her team for organising this event that discusses the impact of nitrogen on climate change and how our efforts can spur climate action.

It is apt that this webinar is being organised primarily in Sri Lanka, given the leadership of the Government of Sri Lanka in spearheading the Colombo Declaration in 2019 which is a roadmap for UN Member States for action on nitrogen challenges. Member States solidified their commitment to nitrogen management during the UN Environment Assembly’s session in 2019, when delegates adopted a resolution calling for a coordinated and collaborative approach to sustainable nitrogen management.

As we collectively journey towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we recognise that nitrogen is everywhere and relevant across all the Sustainable Development Goals as well as in post-COVID-19 green recovery.

Through its biological functions and whole life-cycle, nitrogen is a common currency specifically for achieving SDGs 2, 6, 12, 13, 14, and 15[1]. Therefore, there is a need for applying a full-chain approach to improving nitrogen use efficiency, including technological, policy and behavioural interventions affecting the production, consumption, and recycling of nitrogen[2].

Here in Sri Lanka, as in the rest of the world the increase in reactive nitrogen is causing several environmental problems such as, ozone depletion and climate change. As many of you know, nitrous oxide accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHS) emissions, with agriculture accounting for 90 percent of these emissions. Nitrogen oxide has been reported as one of the major air contaminants in Sri Lankan cities, and the agriculture sector accounted for about 82 percent of the total nitrogen emissions[3].

The UN in Sri Lanka has partnered with the Government to reduce the harmful impact of nitrogen through several programmes.

Firstly, the World Food Programme (WFP) works to reduce the excessive use of inorganic fertilizers in farming and promotes the proper management of manure to minimise the release of nitrous oxide. As well as more policy level interventions through the development of a policy brief on Sustainable Food Systems which helps understand the importance of transforming food systems from being a key contributor to climate change to being part of the solution by sustainably shifting practices across environmental, economic and social dimensions.

Second, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) partners with the Department of Agriculture to develop fertilizer recommendations based on site specific application processes. With a specific focus on promoting input management of agriculture, especially in vegetable cultivation in the upcountry areas of Sri Lanka. The FAO is also developing a National Action Plan to reduce, prevent and recycle food waste, which will reduce the environmental pollution from – for instance the food waste of the Colombo municipality, which is around 310 metric tons per day, with only a small portion of it reused.

Finally, developing partnership at the policy level and creating awareness is the focus of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which is working on a Policy Dialogue in partnership with the British High Commission and others, intended to convene key cross-cutting stakeholders, decisionmakers, development practitioners and policymakers to raise awareness on green development, reach wide ranging consensus on a green pathway, establish a multi-stakeholder platform and influence the policy making sphere in realising a green recovery.

Additionally, UNDP’s Climate Resilient Integrated Water Management programme has helped the Government of Sri Lanka to develop a national guideline on Climate Smart Agriculture. The guideline promotes ecological farming practises with minimum application of synthetic Nitrogen fertilizer which reduces Nitrogen pollution of soil and water resources. UNDP is also supporting the Ministry of Environment to develop the National Environment Action Plan, which will identify strategic action points on various environmental issues, including nitrogen management, waste, air pollution etc.

Our efforts also recognise the importance of focusing on green recovery in the post COVID-19 era. The UN Advisory Paper on the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka focuses on green economic growth trajectories, green industry and low-carbon economy investments including green bonds to raise revenues and restructure debt.

Nitrogen as the world’s most important nutrient, requires a full-chain approach to increase its overall efficiency and to reduce its environmental impact[4]. It will be critical now to establish suitable roadmaps at the level of individual countries that enable policy makers, businesses, and other stakeholders to plan ahead and implement the right actions[5].

These efforts require global consensus and concrete actions, especially in the context of COVID-19 recovery. As the Secretary-General noted at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate last week – “only 18 to 24 per cent of pandemic recovery spending is expected to contribute to mitigating emissions, reducing air pollution or strengthening natural capital”. He noted that “the trillions of dollars needed for COVID-19 recovery is money we are borrowing from future generations.  We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden them with a mountain of debt on a broken planet”[6].

Therefore, I hope that through the discussions during the next three days – we are all able to agree on a path forward to manage nitrogen, safeguard our planet, recover from COVID-19 and ensure that we provide future generations a planet that is in better shape than when we arrived on it!

All the best with the deliberations over the next few days, the UN stands by to convene and partner with Member States and all partners on safeguarding the planet.


[1] 2 zero hunger, 6 clean water and sanitation, 12 responsible production and consumption, 13 climate action, 14 life below water and 15 life on land.
[2] Sutton MA et al. (2012). Our nutrient world: the challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. Center for Ecology and Hydrology, Global Partnership on Nutrient Management, INI, Edinburgh. 
[4] Looking forward to 2030: Nitrogen and the Sustainable Development Goals Achim Dobermann
[5] Looking forward to 2030: Nitrogen and the Sustainable Development Goals Achim Dobermann