GCRF South Asian Nitrogen Hub

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Department Name: Atmospheric Chemistry and Effects

Abstract

Humans have massively altered flows of nitrogen on our planet, leading to both benefits for food production and multiple threats to the environment. There are few places on Earth more affected than South Asia, with levels of nitrogen pollution rapidly increasing. The result is a web of interlinked problems, as nitrogen losses from agriculture and from fossil fuel combustion cause air and water pollution. This damages human health, threatens biodiversity of forests and rivers, and leads to coastal and marine pollution that exacerbates the effects of climate change, such as by predisposing reefs to coral bleaching. Altogether, it is clear that nitrogen pollution is something we should be taking very seriously.

The amazing thing is that so few people have heard of the problem. Everyone knows about climate change and carbon footprints, but how many people are aware that nitrogen pollution is just as significant? One reason for this is that scientists and policy makers have traditionally specialised. Different experts have focused on different parts of the nitrogen story, and few have the expertise to see how all the issues fit together.

This challenge is taken up by a major new research hub established under the UK Global Challenge Research Fund. The "GCRF South Asian Nitrogen Hub" is a partnership that brings together 32 leading research organisations with project engagement partners from the UK and South Asia. All eight countries of the South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP) are included. The hub includes research on how to improve nitrogen management in agriculture, saving money on fertilizers and making better use of manure, urine and natural nitrogen fixation processes. It highlights options for more profitable and cleaner farming for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives. At the same time, the hub considers how nitrogen pollution could be turned back to fertilizer, for example by capturing nitrogen oxide gas from factories and converting it into nitrate.

The fact that all the SACEP countries are included is really important. It means that lessons can be shared on good experiences as well as on whether there are cultural, economic and environmental differences that prevent better management practices from being adopted. It is also important from the perspective of international diplomacy, and provides an example to demonstrate how working together on a common problem is in everyone's interest. It puts the focus on future cooperation for a healthier planet, rather than on the past.

The South Asian case provides for some exciting scientific, social, cultural and economic research challenges. The first is simply to get all the researchers talking together and understanding each other. There are dozens of languages in South Asia, matching the challenge met when different research disciplines come together. This is where developing a shared language around nitrogen can really help. There are lots of nitrogen forms ranging from unreactive atmospheric nitrogen (N2), to the air pollutants ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), to nitrate (NO3-) which contaminates watercourses, and nitrous oxide (N2O) which is a greenhouse gas. The impacts of each of these are being studied to provide a better understanding of how they all fit together.

The result is an approach that aims to give a much more coherent picture of the nitrogen cycle in South Asia: What is stopping us from taking action, and what can be done about it. One of the big expectations is that the economic value of nitrogen will help. India alone spends around £6 billion per year subsidising fertilizer supply. It means that South Asian governments are strongly motivated to use nitrogen better. At which point research from the South Asian hub can provide guidance on where they might start.

Planned Impact

The GCRF South Asian Nitrogen Hub connects four key sectors to ensure long-term impact: a) It engages with POLICYMAKERS through the intergovernmental South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP); b) It brings together a network of VILLAGE engagement across South Asia; c) It promotes wider CIVIL SOCIETY engagement by "twinning" NGO nitrogen forums; d) It builds on existing partnerships with key BUSINESS forums. Multi-actor feedback will stimulate further impact initiatives, supported by workshops, while a substantial flexibility budget will facilitate research innovation.

HUB CO-DESIGN: The hub adopts a theory-of-change that starts with the nature of the problem, uses co-design with key stakeholders to identify the research needs, and works with the actors and mobilization platforms needed to effect change. At its heart is the challenge of overcoming fragmentation across policies, practice, science and communication about the nitrogen cycle. The co-design process started with workshops between the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) chair, the INI South Asian Nitrogen Centre and SACEP in 2013, 2015 and 2016. The joint workshop of SACEP governments and the International Nitrogen Management System (INMS) in Malé (Sept. 2017) was a key step which identified the major goals and research priorities. These were refined at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-3), with the recent SACEP Governing Council (March 2018) confirming a draft 'Nitrogen Resolution' from Malé to be submitted to UNEA-4.

INTERGOVERNMENTAL PARTNERSHIPS: Pathways to impact and long-term durability are underpinned by embedding the GCRF Hub within INMS, which has recently been established by UN Environment and INI, with 5-year financing through the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

There are three scales with mutual feedback:

A) INMS will be a key receiving body for the hub research results, enabling the results to be embedded into the first International Nitrogen Assessment (2022), into MS guidance documentation and into support for policy.

B) The SACEP / INMS / UN Environment link will enable the hub to reach global partners, including the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen of the UNECE Geneva Air Convention, the UNEP-led GPA on land-marine environmental protection, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UNFCCC (e.g. Koronivia Joint Work), the Vienna Convention on Stratospheric Ozone (relevant for N2O), OECD and UN Agenda 2030 on the Sustainable Development Goals.

C) The consensus building through SACEP will allow South Asia to champion hub outcomes to UNEA and globally (e.g., World Environment Day, New Delhi 2018; proposed 2020 Nitrogen Summit, Berlin; concept for the Inter-convention Nitrogen Coordination Mechanism - 'UN Nitrogen').

FARMER, CIVIL SOCIETY & BUSINESS: The co-design process draws on piloting experience from the NEWS India-UK centre, providing key pathways-for-impact with local communities and wider civil society. An IARI-led pilot in Mumtazur, Haryana provides a basis to co-design manure and urine approaches. It links farmer priorities and concerns with scientific evidence, and considering social, cultural and religious factors. This approach will be replicated across the hub, allowing lessons to be shared with SACEP, business and wider-civil society. Civil society "twinning" will focus on multi-actor engagement at a city/regional scale, piloted by "Nourish Scotland" and the "Sustainable India Trust", with lessons informing extension to other South Asian contexts. Business engagement will be facilitated through INMS partners (inc. Fertilizer Association of India, International Fertilizer Association, BASF) and the 'Cool Farm Alliance' (esp. food-system companies) and the KITT Business Incubator. Activities will inform priority setting, and better understanding of how contrasting aspirations of citizens (e.g. dietary choice) may reciprocally influence the developed world and South Asia in future trajectories.

People

ORCID iD

Mark A Sutton (Principal Investigator)
Clare Howard (Co-Investigator)
Massimo Vieno (Co-Investigator)
Adam Price (Co-Investigator)
Ute Skiba (Co-Investigator)
Jon Hillier (Co-Investigator)
Tariq Aziz (Co-Investigator)
Subodh Sharma (Co-Investigator)
Alexander William Tudhope (Co-Investigator)
Roger Jeffery (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1702-7253
Laura Maritza Cardenas (Co-Investigator)
Shazla Mohamed (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0402-5155
Anita Ganesan (Co-Investigator)
Umme Aminun Naher (Co-Investigator)
Suraj Kumar Tripathy (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2778-8937
David Stevenson (Co-Investigator)
Purvaja Ramachandran (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7937-3763
Clare Barnes (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-9857-1447
Gufran Beig (Co-Investigator)
Toufiq Iqbal (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7835-9521
Md. Mizanur Rahman (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2353-6823
Dendup Tshering (Co-Investigator)
Abdulla Naseer (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0033-8744
Damodar Jena (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5107-7572
Renu Singh (Co-Investigator)
Desiraju Subrahmanyam (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-1947-2695
Aminath Shazly (Co-Investigator)
SUDIPTA CHATTERJEE (Co-Investigator)
Julia Drewer (Co-Investigator)
Sarath Premalal Nissanka (Co-Investigator)
Stuart Carl Painter (Co-Investigator)
Philip John Skuce (Co-Investigator)
Peter Smith (Co-Investigator)
Peter Shewry (Co-Investigator)
Jason Holt (Co-Investigator)
Alfred Gathorne-Hardy (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6251-3707
Arti Bhatia (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7884-4658
Stefan Reis (Co-Investigator)
Niveta Jain (Co-Investigator)
David Sean Reay (Co-Investigator)
Stefano Brandani (Co-Investigator)
Victoria Anne Bell (Co-Investigator)
Abdul Wakeel (Co-Investigator)
Nancy Dise (Co-Investigator)
Tom Misselbrook (Co-Investigator)
Eiko Nemitz (Co-Investigator)
Mallika Pinnawala (Co-Investigator)
Khem Raj Dahal (Co-Investigator)
RABI NARAYAN SUBUDHI (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-9502-2098
RAMESH RAMACHANDRAN (Co-Investigator)
Icarus Allen (Co-Investigator)
MJ Bowes (Co-Investigator)
HIMANSHU PATHAK (Co-Investigator)
Zikrullah Safi (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-8702-3402
J.U. Smith (Co-Investigator)
Tapan Kumar Adhya (Co-Investigator)
Asif Reza Anik (Co-Investigator)
Ulrike Dragosits (Co-Investigator)
ALTAF AHMAD (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0003-4099-7338
Bob Rees (Co-Investigator)
Mrutyunjay Suar (Co-Investigator)
Alan David Dangour (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6908-1273
Vera Eory (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7134-3233
Sanjoy Bandyopadhyay (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0002-1282-562X
Till Pellny (Co-Investigator)
Raghuram Nandula (Co-Investigator)
Liz Grant (Co-Investigator) orcid http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7248-7792
Christopher James Ellis (Co-Investigator)

Publications

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