Estimating environmentally relevant fixed nitrogen demand in the 21st century

Abstract

Human activities affect the impact of the nitrogen cycle on both the environment and climate. The rate of anthropogenic nitrogen fixation from atmospheric N2 may serve as an indicator to the magnitude of this impact, acknowledging that relationship to be effect-dependent and non-linear. Building on the set of Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) scenarios developed for climate change research, we estimate anthropogenic industrial nitrogen fixation throughout the 21st century. Assigning characteristic key drivers to the four underlying scenarios we arrive at nitrogen fixation rates for agricultural use of 80 to 172 Tg N/yr by 2100, which is slightly less to almost twice as much compared with the fixation rate for the year 2000. We use the following key drivers of change, varying between scenarios: population growth, consumption of animal protein, agricultural efficiency improvement and additional biofuel production. Further anthropogenic nitrogen fixation for production of materials such as explosives or plastics and from combustion are projected to remain considerably smaller than that related to agriculture. While variation among the four scenarios is considerable, our interpretation of scenarios constrains the option space: several of the factors enhancing the anthropogenic impact on the nitrogen cycle may occur concurrently, but never all of them. A scenario that is specifically targeted towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions ends up as the potentially largest contributor to nitrogen fixation, as a result of large amounts of biofuels required and the fertilizer used to produce it. Other published data on nitrogen fixation towards 2100 indicate that our high estimates based on the RCP approach are rather conservative. Even the most optimistic scenario estimates that nitrogen fixation rate will remain substantially in excess of an estimate of sustainable boundaries by 2100.

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Acknowledgments

The authors gratefully acknowledge support received for this work from the ÉCLAIRE project (part-financed by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme). This paper represents a contribution to the work of the International Nitrogen Initiative.

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Correspondence to Wilfried Winiwarter.

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Winiwarter, W., Erisman, J.W., Galloway, J.N. et al. Estimating environmentally relevant fixed nitrogen demand in the 21st century. Climatic Change 120, 889–901 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-013-0834-0

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Keywords

  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Nitrogen Cycle
  • Representative Concentration Pathway
  • Biological Nitrogen Fixation
  • Integrate Assessment Model