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A Quota for Nitrogen

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Abstract

Reactive nitrogen is necessary to grow food. It is often the limiting factor for plant growth, and without it, farming yields would be substantially lower. However, the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers has led to high levels of nutrient run off, causing algal blooms and therefore anaerobic dead zones in rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The Planetary Boundary for nitrogen is a maximum of 62 Tg N/year of intentionally fixated nitrogen. This indicator is scalable, but not easily comparable to human activity. Further, it does not consider downstream denitrification processes that can reduce the environmental impacts of nitrogen use.

The Planetary Quota indicator for nitrogen is net nitrogen consumed ≤ 62 Tg N. This includes virtual nitrogen that is lost to the environment during the production of food and accounts for the removal and recycling of nitrogen from the human nitrogen cycle. The limit is based on the premise that the Planetary Boundary value is based on the maximum flow of nitrogen to waterways. Net nitrogen consumed will eventually end in waterways. This limit can be compared to the nitrogen footprint of any scale of human activity. Current annual nitrogen consumption exceeds the PQ for nitrogen.

All we are is a lot of talking nitrogen

Arthur Miller

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Environmental indicators can be classed as States, Impacts, Drivers, or Pressures under the European Union DPSIR framework. Pressures describe flows to the environment and are the type of indicator used for the Planetary Quotas. See Chap. 5 for details.

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Meyer, K., Newman, P. (2020). A Quota for Nitrogen. In: Planetary Accounting. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-1443-2_14

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