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Trends in Loss of Reactive Nitrogen to the Environment

Key indicator facts

Indicator type

Pressure

Applicable for national use

Yes

Indicator classification

Operational and included in the CBD's list of indicators

Indicator type

Pressure

Applicable for national use

Yes

Indicator classification

Operational and included in the CBD's list of indicators

Last update

2008

Coverage

Global

Availability

Not freely available

Partners

Logo

International Nitrogen Initiative

Nitrogen footprint

Nitrogen Footprint

Contact point

Indicator description

Inefficient use of fertilizer and/or fossil fuels results in loss of reactive nitrogen to the environment. Eventually, the lost reactive nitrogen to the environment can end up close to the sources or in remote areas located far from human activities, where it is often the dominant source of reactive nitrogen. Once introduced there, the increased reactive nitrogen levels can severely impact associated biodiversity. Reactive nitrogen can also contribute to eutrophication of coastal ecosystems, acidification of forests, soils, and freshwater streams and lakes.

* Reactive nitrogen is chemically and biologically active, and is formed via the conversion of non-reactive atmospheric nitrogen (N2) through artificial fertilizer production and/or fossil fuel burning.

Related Aichi Targets

Primary target

8

Target 8:

By 2020, pollution, including from excess nutrients, has been brought to levels that are not detrimental to ecosystem function and biodiversity.

Primary target

8

Target 8:

By 2020, pollution, including from excess nutrients, has been brought to levels that are not detrimental to ecosystem function and biodiversity.

8

Related SDGs

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GOAL 2 - End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Target 2.4| Relevant indicator

By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.

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GOAL 14 - Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Target 14.1| Relevant indicator

By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.

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GOAL 15 - Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Target 15.1| Relevant indicator

By 2020, ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands, in line with obligations under international agreements.

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GOAL 2 - End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

E sdg goals icons individual rgb 14

GOAL 14 - Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

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GOAL 15 - Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

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E sdg goals icons individual rgb 14
E sdg goals icons individual rgb 15

Other related MEAs and processes

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CMS

Target 7| Relevant indicator

Multiple anthropogenic pressures have been brought to levels that are not detrimental to the conservation of migratory species or to the functioning, integrity, ecological connectivity and resilience of their habitats.

Indicator icon

IPBES Global Assessment Chapters

Chapter 2| Relevant indicator

Status and trends; indirect and direct drivers of change

Chapter 3| Relevant indicator

Progress towards meeting major international objectives related to biodiversity and ecosystem services

Indicator icon

IPBES Regional Assessment Chapters

Chapter 3| Relevant indicator

Status, trends and future dynamics of biodiversity and ecosystems underpinning nature’s benefits to people

Chapter 4| Relevant indicator

Direct and indirect drivers of change in the context of different perspectives of quality of life

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Ramsar

Target 5| Relevant indicator

The ecological character of Ramsar Sites is maintained or restored, through effective planning and integrated management

Target 7| Relevant indicator

Sites that are at risk of change of ecological character have threats addressed.

Target 14| Relevant indicator

Scientific guidance and technical methodologies at global and regional levels are developed on relevant topics and are available to policy makers and practitioners in an appropriate format and language.

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UNCCD

Outcome 3.1| Relevant indicator

National monitoring and vulnerability assessment on biophysical and socio-economic trends in affected countries are supported.

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CMS

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IPBES Global Assessment Chapters

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IPBES Regional Assessment Chapters

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Ramsar

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UNCCD

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Indicator icon
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Themes

Pollution

Partners

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Nitrogen footprint

Key indicator facts

Indicator type

Pressure

Applicable for national use

Yes

Indicator classification

Operational and included in the CBD's list of indicators

Indicator type

Pressure

Applicable for national use

Yes

Indicator classification

Operational and included in the CBD's list of indicators

Last update

2008

Coverage

Global

Availability

Not freely available

Indicator description

Inefficient use of fertilizer and/or fossil fuels results in loss of reactive nitrogen to the environment. Eventually, the lost reactive nitrogen to the environment can end up close to the sources or in remote areas located far from human activities, where it is often the dominant source of reactive nitrogen. Once introduced there, the increased reactive nitrogen levels can severely impact associated biodiversity. Reactive nitrogen can also contribute to eutrophication of coastal ecosystems, acidification of forests, soils, and freshwater streams and lakes.

* Reactive nitrogen is chemically and biologically active, and is formed via the conversion of non-reactive atmospheric nitrogen (N2) through artificial fertilizer production and/or fossil fuel burning.

Contact point

Graphs / Diagrams

Figure 1.

Current storyline

This indicator shows the reactive nitrogen loss for different regions of the world as a result of the production and consumption of food and the use of energy (e.g. for electricity production, industry and transport), and is expressed as the reactive nitrogen loss per capita per year, without making a distinction between losses to air, soil and water. This loss is a measure of potential reactive nitrogen pollution; the actual pollution depends on environmental factors and the extent to which the waste flows at production and consumption of food and energy are being reused.

Reactive nitrogen is chemically and biologically active, and is formed via the conversion of non-reactive atmospheric nitrogen (N2) through artificial fertilizer production and/or fossil fuel burning. Inefficient use of fertilizer and/or fossil fuels results in loss of reactive nitrogen to the environment, which contributes to climate change, the formation of high ozone concentrations in the lower atmosphere, eutrophication of coastal ecosystems, nitrification of forests, soils, and freshwater streams and lakes, and loss of biodiversity.

In 2008, the global production and consumption of food and energy results in an average reactive nitrogen loss of 29 kg of nitrogen per inhabitant per year. Of the total loss, 5 kg is the result of energy use, 18 kg is from food production (agriculture), 1 kg due to food processing and 4 kg is released during food consumption.

The European reactive nitrogen loss per person is about 10 kg higher than the global loss and is almost half of that in North America, but twice as high as in Africa. The energy component is relatively large in industrialized countries, while the contribution of food production and consumption is large in countries with an extensive livestock sector and high levels of meat consumption.

This storyline is based on 2008 baseline data.

Data and methodology

Coverage: Regional/national baseline.

Scale: Global.

Time series available: 2008 – 2008.

Next planned update: 2017.

Possible disaggregations: National level.

Methodology: This indicator shows the reactive nitrogen loss for different countries/regions of the world as a result of the production and consumption of food and the use of energy (e.g. for electricity production, industry and transport), and is expressed as a surrogate for reactive nitrogen “loss” per capita per year, without making a distinction between losses to air, soil and water when estimating the losses. To compare losses for individual countries with each other and/or with regions/the world, data are required that are comparable for these regions/countries. Although comparability increases, this will cause some restrictions with respect to the accuracy of the results.

Starting point for the overall methodology are national data for the topics ‘food’ and ‘fossil fuel’.

Food

For the topic ‘food’ the global database of FAO is used, which is available via FAOSTAT. Important datasets are: ‘food balance’, fertilizer use’ and ‘trade’. Figure 3 gives a general overview of the various parts that are included in the food section of the Tier 1 approach.

Figure 2. Overview of the food section of the indicator.

For the food section, calculations start from the ‘food balance’ and ‘fertilizer consumption’ datasets. These are used for calculating the loss of reactive nitrogen during the agricultural production process in a country. With the fertilizer consumption per country as a basis, the total amount of nitrogen in agricultural products (based on that fertilizer) is then subtracted. The difference is the surplus of Nr as the potential of Nr loss to the environment.

However, fertilizer is not the only input into the system at a national scale. Also nitrogen deposition and biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) can form substantial nitrogen sources. These two topics are, however, not available via FAO and thus have to be taken from another data source. FAO, however, does provide information on different crops, and BNF to some extent can be estimated by extrapolating from the yield of leguminous plants. Nitrogen deposition can only be derived from atmospheric models. For the total production process also the use of animal manure is important. For the methodology described here, the assumption is that fertilizer is the starting point of the process and animal manure is in fact only an ‘intermediate product’ and therefore not considered as a separate part in the calculations. The same is true for the production of fodder (such as grazed grass), for which no robust statistical information exist.

The first step towards and average potential to Nr emissions and loss during the production of agricultural products could be an expanded gross nitrogen balance and is calculated as follows:

Fertilizer + imported feed/seed + BNF + deposition – production = loss (Nr surplus)

Important part of the overall calculation is the conversion of the amounts FAO product to amounts of nitrogen and Nr loss rate. This is done by using the available amount of product and protein per product group and country in the FAO database. Based on these data, and the assumption of 0.16 g N/g protein, the conversion to nitrogen content of that Nr pool can be made.

The second part of the food part is relatively easy, because the necessary numbers are available via the FAO food balance dataset. The parts that are needed for this are ‘waste’ and ‘processing’. These two items for crops and meat give the total amount of nitrogen by which the Nr pool is reduced on the way from production (on the farm and in the food industry) to the consumer. The problem with these numbers, however, is that we don’t know to what extent these losses are really ‘lost’, or perhaps via a detour enter the production system again (e.g. in the form of compost, animal feed, etc.).

The last part is now the nitrogen lost during (and after) consumption. Here a loss of 25% before consumption is assumed, where again there is a question about the fate of this ‘loss’: is it really lost or e.g. recycled as compost. Depending on the sewage treatment system, part of the nitrogen entering the treatment will be converted back to atmospheric N2, and is thus not harmful to the environment anymore. At the moment this conversion back to N2 is not included in this approach. However, when more information about this process is available from more detailed national data, this last step can be easily implemented in the calculation of the overall loss (which will thus decrease).

The total change in nitrogen pools (L) due to the ‘food’ part (Lfood), is now a combination of the above mentioned three parts:

Lfood = Lagri + Lwasteprocessing + Lwasteconsumption + Lhumanwaste

with:

Lagri = Nfertiliser + Nimportedfeed + Nimportedfeed + Nbnf + Ndeposition - Nfood

Lwasteprocessing = waste + processing

Lconsumption = 75% food (Lhumanwaste - waste water) + 25% food (Lwasteconsumption – food waste)

Fossil Fuel

For the ‘fossil fuel’ section, things are a bit more complicated, mainly due to the limited availability of relevant data. However, in terms of the actual calculation it is much easier. When data related to energy- or fuel consumption are available, the calculation is mainly a combination of those data with emission factors. Release of Nr (to the atmosphere) mostly takes the form of nitrogen oxides (NOx or N2O), which is formed from N contained in the fuel (e.g. in coal, oil or biomass), but previously not considered as Nr – the so-called “fuel-NOx” – and from oxidation of molecular N2 from combustion air at very high temperatures only, the “thermal NOx” (a third pathway, via reaction of hydrocarbons with molecular nitrogen, is less relevant). Emission factors cover the gross total of all these processes, but the importance of “thermal NOx” makes it critical to differentiate between use of fuels in high temperature processes (e.g., internal combustion engines) and low temperature combustion (e.g., heating). Also process use of fuels (e.g. natural gas in fertilizer production) may be associated with completely different emission factors. Finally, the release into the atmosphere is critically dependent on pollution abatement devices. Catalytic converters and non-catalytic reduction technology are able to remove >95% of the NOx released originally, thus strongly decreasing the ultimate “loss” to the atmosphere.

National use of indicator

This indicator provides the first steps in identifying the ‘nitrogen status’ in a country and the possible consequences that might have to biodiversity through the loss of nitrogen to air, water or soil. Guidance documents for producing this indicator at the national level will become available through the INI website (www.initrogen.org).

For further information on producing this indicator nationally, please contact Albert Bleeker, Director of Operations at albert.bleeker@pbl.nl or contact@initrogen.org.

Further resources

Key indicator facts

Indicator type

Pressure

Applicable for national use

Yes

Indicator classification

Operational and included in the CBD's list of indicators

Indicator type

Pressure

Applicable for national use

Yes

Indicator classification

Operational and included in the CBD's list of indicators

Last update

2008

Coverage

Global

Availability

Not freely available

Partners

Logo

International Nitrogen Initiative

Nitrogen footprint

Nitrogen Footprint

Contact point