Skip to main content

COP26   |   Farming   |   Climate change

COP26 fails to tackle nitrogen in farming

Exclusive: Louise Gray, in Glasgow 

Scientists and farmers are angry that UK diplomats at the recent COP26 climate talks in Glasgow failed to include cutting nitrogen pollution as part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Glasgow Climate Pact just about kept alive the hope that global temperatures can be kept below 1.5 degrees of warming, although Greenpeace described it as “on life support”.

To achieve the goal, greenhouse gases will have to be brought down to net zero by 2050 at the latest. But scientists say a key opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases was missed by the UK presidency in charge of the talks, and it’s an areas that directly relates to farming.

The Nitrogen4NetZero initiative was put forward by the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), a group of scientists concerned about the impact of nitrogen pollution on human health, climate change and biodiversity. The group point out that nitrous oxide has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

The initiative, which proposes halving nitrogen waste by 2030, had already gained support from several countries in south Asia, led by Sri Lanka, and there was hope more might sign up.

In contrast, a pledge to cut methane by 30 per cent was promoted at COP26 and resulted in more than 100 countries signing up.

Yet the UK chose not to put forward the Nitrogen4NetZero, a similar initiative, and use the impetus of hosting the high profile talks to ask more countries to join.

“You cannot reach net zero without cutting nitrogen pollution,” said Professor Mark Sutton, chair of the INI, who told Wicked Leeks he was “depressed by the lost opportunity”. “The UK had one chance to get nitrogen on the table and they missed it,” he said.

Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that comes from artificial fertilisers. Image Natural England/Steve Marston. 

The main source of nitrogen pollution is nitrous oxide that enters the atmosphere after artificial nitrogen fertiliser is applied to the soil. This could be reduced by using natural fertilisers, such as crops that ‘fix’ nitrogen into the soil, like clover, and precision farming, where farmers might use GPS on tractors to apply nitrogen fertiliser only where it is needed.

It comes as a recent report released during COP26 identified the production and application of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers as “a major driver of the climate crisis”.

Jo Lewis, policy director at the Soil Association, was also disappointed in the failure to talk about artificial fertiliser and intensive livestock production at COP26.

She said: “Farming’s reliance on soya as animal feed and energy intensive artificial fertilisers are key drivers of global deforestation and nitrous oxide emissions. We must radically reduce reliance on harmful chemical inputs and curb our insatiable appetite for animals that have been fed with soya from South America.”

It was hoped the UN’s earlier efforts to bring farming into the climate change talks, the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture would be concluded at COP26, but the process, including efforts to bring agroecology into discussions, is ongoing.

Ceris Jones, climate change advisor at the National Farmers Union, said the talks were “disappointing”. She said efforts by the NFU to present some of the solutions farmers could offer in cutting greenhouse gases were not given enough prominence.

“Agriculture is a sink as well as a source of greenhouse gases and it simply was not talked about enough,” she said.

Feedback, the environmental and food waste charity, said COP26 had failed to do enough to reduce emissions from the food sector, including methane from food waste and animal agriculture.

Pete Ritchie, an organic farmer and director of Nourish Scotland, said food systems as a whole were neglected at COP26, including the management of nitrogen.

He said efforts must now focus on ensuring farming and food systems are top of the agenda at COP27, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. “Food systems will have to be absolutely central to the next COP,” he said.

How do you think farming can contribute to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees? Comment below. 


    2 Weeks

    How can we all help to get Farming and Fertilisers on to the top of agenda for COP27?
    Give us some suggestions......

    1 Reply

    view replies

    Louise Gray

    1 Week 5 Days

    Well the UK Presidency is in charge until COP27 so there is an opportunity to keep pushing on climate change The Koronivia process is the UN’s effort to cut emissions from climate change and is also due to come up with some decisions at COP27 The NFU and Soil Association are both campaigning to strengthen these agreements. As individuals I think our best bet in just under a year is to engage vis these organisations. Be interested in more suggestions!

    0 Reply


    1 Week 1 Day

    Write to our MPs too, especially in rural areas?
    Thank you for that article, Louise, I'd no idea about the Nitrogen4NetZero initiative.

    0 Reply

    Wicked Leeks issue 8

    Wicked Leeks issue 8 is out now

    Featuring a cover interview with Patagonia, the latest news from COP26, and living for a new era. Plus meet the farm of the future, how to eat to protect biodiversity and seasonal eating in autumn.

    Read more

    Ethical organic veg boxes

    Riverford Organic Farmers, leading the Veg Revolution since 1986.

    Shop Riverford

    Guy's news...

    Founder of Riverford Guy Singh-Watson writes a weekly column with news from the farm and more...

    Read more
    Spread the word

    The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity losses will be the defining stories of our future, but it is not too late to change direction. 

    Here at Wicked Leeks, our mission is to help inform and inspire positive change. Our journalism is free to all because of this, but we want to reach as many people as possible who share our desire for a better world. We know our readers are some of the biggest advocates of sustainable living, and you can help us grow this movement by sharing this article widely, with your friends and on social media. Now is the time to act.