Pump priming towards the International Nitrogen Management System (INMSpp)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


Nitrogen compounds are essential for life. They are needed to make many biological compounds including proteins, amino acids, DNA and ATP (the 'fuel source' of cells), without which no living organism could survive. Nitrogen is particularly important because it often limits food production, while high levels of N compounds in the environment lead to serious pollution problems. By supplying N fertilizers, farmers greatly improve their yields. This has been essential to feed the growing world population over the last century, with N fertilizers estimated to sustain ~3.5 billion people, almost half of humanity.

While the increased manufacture and mobilization of reactive N sources can be seen as a great feat of 'geoengineering', there have been many unintended consequences. A growing human population needs more food, so more fertilizers, especially as we now eat more animal products per person. The result is a complex web of pollution issues, threatening water, air and soil quality, altering climate balance and impacting on ecosystems and human health. In addition to the loss of N from farms, other sources cannot be forgotten. These include air emissions from burning, and losses to water from sewage systems. Overall, human alteration of the global N cycle makes for a multi-issue problem that ranks alongside climate change as one of the great challenges of the 21st century. The European Nitrogen Assessment has estimated that N pollution alone causes 70-320 billion Euro per year of damage across the EU (Nature, 14 April 2011,472,159).

Given the wide diversity of nitrogen loss pathways into the environment, there are many potential solutions. In a recent report 'Our Nutrient World' led by CEH for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, launched Feb 2013), 10 key actions were identified which would contribute to better nutrient management, simultaneously helping to meet food security goals while reducing the pollution of air, land and water, with multiple benefits for ecosystems, climate and human health. However, 'Our Nutrient World' also identified that there is currently no global international agreement that links the many benefits and threats of nitrogen. As a result, there is also no coordinated scientific assessment and support process to quantify and demonstrate these linkages.

This gap is now being addressed by the International Opportunities Fund (IOF) of the NERC through its support for a new endeavour "Pump priming to towards the International Nitrogen Management System" - or 'INMSpp' for short.

The central idea is that a scientific support system is needed that can provide the evidence needed to show how joined-up management of the global nitrogen cycle will deliver multiple benefits, and to be able to evaluate options that policy makers may wish to consider. Already there is a developing ambition for INMS as reflected by the invitation from the UN Global Environment Facility (GEF) for the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) to work with UNEP to develop a concept to establish a future INMS approach. Ultimately this would be a major endeavour, linking indicators, models and datasets to allow evaluation of possible international agreements.

The INMS pump priming project provides a key step towards this eventual goal. As one of the key challenges to establish model chains from source to impact to mitigation and adaptation the INMSpp project has taken on the task of working out how integrated global modelling of the nitrogen cycle should be developed. The project will bring together a global consortium to examine how models can be joined up to demonstrate the net benefits of better nitrogen management. This will be a key resource as the INMS approach is developed. The outcome is the prospect to show how linking up different international environmental agreements can build common ground, simultaneously supporting food and energy security and a cleaner environment.

Planned Impact

a. Integrating research perspectives

The INMSpp project will benefit UK competitiveness by bringing together UK scientists with leading international partners allowing UK to lead the agenda on global nitrogen research in relation to environmental challenges. By going the 'extra mile' in integrating air, land and marine flows with impacts assessment and economic modelling, the project will provide key training for the team members, while improving UK competitiveness in the future global market for N management expertise. This can be expected to develop strongly as a response to increased awareness of N impacts as a result of the INMSpp and eventual INMS endeavours (impact: 3-20 years).

b. Cost savings for environmentally sensitive farming and environmental regulation

Agricultural activities, especially livestock, have major impacts on the environment leading to large societal costs. Improved understanding of N cycling will underpin advice on improved management techniques, both for farmers and conservation managers. By decreasing losses of nitrogen from the farming system, environmental measures can help farmers reduce their fertilizer bill. For example, a 30% reduction in agricultural N losses equates to a saving of 5 bn Euro per year to EU farmers (based on ENA). Environmental regulation can also entail costs to farmers, depending on the nature of best available techniques (BAT) and ambition of the commitments. Unit costs of abatement measures are substantially reduced where multiple benefits can be shown. (impact 5-10 yrs).

c. Evidence underpinning future European air quality, climate and other environmental policy

The ongoing negotiations to the EU National Emissions Ceilings Directive (NECD) highlight the importance of supporting European air policy with scientific evidence. In particular, the societal costs of particulate matter and N deposition to ecosystems highlight the need to understand the atmospheric and climate controls. The current analysis (see CLRTAP Long-term strategy, ECE/EB.AIR/2010/4) recognizes the challenge to increasingly link up between such policy domains to quantify the co-benefits between air pollution, climate, water and biodiversity policies, and to develop a holistic approach to N management. The INMSpp project will help take this to the next stage (linking air, climate and nutrients) by developing the basis for establishing future coupled modelling chains, allowing these links, and the economic consequences to be quantified. (impact: 3 to 10 yrs).

d. Supporting a global perspective on nitrogen management

At present there is no multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) to handle nitrogen management problems at a global scale as for climate and biodiversity. The INMSpp project will make a major impact in this direction by contributing the scientific capacity-building and data needed to underpin such a future MEA or more effective partnership between existing MEAs. The project will provide international scientific leadership to support these developments through involvement in the UNEP Global Partnership on Nutrient Management and the INI feeding directly into the GPA and UNEP agenda development (impact: 3-10 yrs).

e. Quality of life in a cleaner world.

Together, these activities will play a key role in improving quality of life. Until recently, the 'nitrogen challenge' facing humanity has received rather little publicity compared with issues such as climate change. Yet the recent ENA estimates of 70-320 billion Euro per year worth of N damage to human health, ecosystems and climate show that a cleaner management of nitrogen has a huge potential to benefit citizens. By improving integration across the nitrogen cycle, the benefit-cost ratios of mitigation measures will further increase, providing scientific evidence to support decision makers and citizens at local, national and international levels (impact: 2-20 yrs).


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Description The INMSpp succeeded in building a global network of experts and stakeholders in nitrogen management. As intended, this has since enabled successful development of new research initiatives such as the Newton-Bhaba NEWS programme (a UK-India collaboration on nitrogen use efficiency in whole-cropping systems). The INMSpp also allowed the development of the much larger 'Towards INMS programme' bringing in research partners from around the world. Our GCRF hub proposal on South Asia Nitrogen Management draws heavily on the collaborations and networks engendered by the INMSpp project and was successful: the South Asia Nitrogen Hub (SANH) GCRF Hub.
Exploitation Route As above, the global network in nitrogen management INMSpp has developed is allowing substantive collaborative research to move forward in the area very rapidly (e.g. the NEWS programme). The successful GCRF Hub funding is further testament to the strong networks and active research links that INMSpp engendered.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

URL http://inms.iwlearn.org/inmspp
Description A succesful and growing global network of nitrogen management researchers, practitioners and policy makers. Direct outcomes have included the successful Newton-Bhaba NEWS programme on nitrogen use efficiency in whole cropping systems (partnership between UK and India). The INMSpp project has also provided the basis for large emerging collaboration programmes with UNEP (Towards INMS) and GCRF (South Asian Nitrogen Management Hub).
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Policy & public services