Nitrogen and the Sustainable Development Goals

David R. Kanter, Xin Zhang, Clare M. Howard3

1 Department of Environmental Studies, New York University, 285 Mercer Street, New York, NY, 10003, USA,

2 University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, 301 Braddock Rd., Frostburg, MD, 21532, USA,

3Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Bush Estate, Scotland, EH26 OQB, UK,, 


The United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to maximize social, economic and environmental wellbeing, from ending hunger and poverty, to enhancing access to education and healthcare, to protecting biodiversity. The inevitable overlap between these broad goals call for implementation strategies that can exploit potential co-benefits. Improving nitrogen management provides a key opportunity for strengthening the three pillars of sustainable development, given nitrogen’s widespread uses and impacts. For example, nitrogen inputs are fundamental to modern food production and rural livelihoods, with Haber-Bosch nitrogen responsible for the existence of almost half the world’s current population. And yet nitrogen pollution is also one of the most important environmental issues of the 21st century, contributing to air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion. Consequently, improving humanity’s complex relationship with nitrogen could be a key component of implementing the SDGs from local to global scales, as well as measuring progress towards them. This study examines the links between nitrogen management and the SDGs. We identify 16 of the 17 goals as relevant to nitrogen management, and group them into three categories: those that require more nitrogen, those that require less nitrogen, and those that could help improve nitrogen management. The “Towards an International Nitrogen Management System” project has taken the first steps to create a science support system for the emerging nitrogen policy community, which could be used to better integrate nitrogen management into implementation strategies for the Sustainable Development Goals.