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Substantial nitrogen pollution embedded in international trade

An Erratum to this article was published on 01 March 2016

This article has been updated


Anthropogenic emissions of reactive nitrogen to the atmosphere and water bodies can damage human health and ecosystems1,2. As a measure of a nation’s contribution to this potential damage, a country’s nitrogen footprint has been defined as the quantity of reactive nitrogen emitted during the production, consumption and transportation of commodities consumed within that country, whether those commodities are produced domestically or internationally3. Here we use global emissions databases4,5, a global nitrogen cycle model6, and a global input–output database of domestic and international trade7,8 to calculate the nitrogen footprints for 188 countries as the sum of emissions of ammonia, nitrogen oxides and nitrous oxide to the atmosphere, and of nitrogen potentially exportable to water bodies. Per-capita footprints range from under 7 kg N yr−1 in some developing countries to over 100 kg N yr−1 in some wealthy nations. Consumption in China, India, the United States and Brazil is responsible for 46% of global emissions. Roughly a quarter of the global nitrogen footprint is from commodities that were traded across country borders. The main net exporters have significant agricultural, food and textile exports, and are often developing countries, whereas important net importers are almost exclusively developed economies. We conclude that substantial local nitrogen pollution is driven by demand from consumers in other countries.

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Figure 1: Embodied nitrogen emissions and per-capita nitrogen footprints for the top ten net exporters and importers.
Figure 2: International flows of embodied nitrogen emissions between countries of last sale and countries of consumption (top ten flows labelled).

Change history

  • 28 January 2016

    In the original version of the Letter originally published, the sentence comparing the authors' results to those of previous studies was missing a citation and it should have read: 'Our results of per-capita NFPs are higher than those presented in previous studies3,11,12,13—for example 62 kg cap−1 yr−1 for the USA compared to 41 kg cap−1 yr−1 (ref. 3)...'. This has been corrected in the online versions of the Letter.


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We thank D. Moran (NTNU, Norway), A. Alsamawi and S. Juraszek (Univ. of Sydney) for technical assistance, J. Shindo (Yamanashi Univ.) and N. Kaneko (Yokohama National Univ.) for their discussions about nitrogen emissions, and C. Jarabak for help with collecting data. A.O. was supported by the Yokohama National University research grant. S.N. and A.O. were supported by the Environment Research and Technology Development Fund (S9 and S14) of the Ministry of the Environment, Japan. M.L., K.K., A.G. and A.M. were financially supported by the Australian Research Council through its Discovery Projects DP0985522 and DP130101293. K.K. was also financially supported by the Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists (No. 15H05341).

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A.O. and M.L. designed the study; A.O., S.N. and K.K. prepared the data; A.M., A.O. and A.G. conducted the analysis; A.M. and A.O. prepared the figures; A.O., M.L. and A.M. wrote the paper; A.O., M.L., A.M. and K.K. contributed to data interpretation and manuscript editing.

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Correspondence to Manfred Lenzen.

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Oita, A., Malik, A., Kanemoto, K. et al. Substantial nitrogen pollution embedded in international trade. Nature Geosci 9, 111–115 (2016).

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