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Trade and the role of non-food commodities for global eutrophication


The oversupply of nutrients (phosphorous and nitrogen) in fresh and marine water bodies presents a serious ecosystem threat due to impacts on water quality through eutrophication. With agriculture characterized as a primary driver of eutrophication, the role of food consumption and trade has been the focus of recent phosphorus and nitrogen impact studies. However, the environmental impacts associated with non-food commodities are significant and yet to be characterized. Here, we link a spatially explicit treatment of phosphorous and nitrogen eutrophication potentials to a multi-regional input–output approach to characterize the importance of overall consumption for marine and freshwater eutrophication across 44 countries and 5 rest-of-world regions over the period 2000–2011. We find that clothing, goods for shelter, services and other manufactured products account for 35% of global marine eutrophication and 38% of the global freshwater eutrophication footprints in 2011, up from 31 and 33%, respectively, in 2000. Relative to food consumption, non-food consumption is also significantly more income elastic and shaped by trade. As economies develop, this points to the need for trade agreements and policies to consider the displacement of ecosystem impacts.

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Fig. 1: Global ME and FE footprints.
Fig. 2: Eutrophication impacts embodied in trade.

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We would like to thank K. Bjørset (Norkart), K. Steen-Olsen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)) and M. Simas (NTNU) for their technical support, M. Huijbrets (Radboud University) for his valuable comments and feedback, and G. Majeau-Bettez, C. Bulle (CIRAIG) and F. Verones (NTNU) for help with characterization factors. We would also like to thank R. Lonka (NTNU) for his assistance with the visualization tools.

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Authors and Affiliations



H.A.H. and R.W. designed the study. R.W. prepared the IO model and basic results. S.M. and J.S. developed the phosphorus and nitrogen accounts. R.v.Z. prepared the impact assessment method. H.A.H. and D.I. conducted the analysis. D.M. conducted the sensitivity analysis. H.A.H. made the figures. H.A.H., R.W., K.S. and D.I. contributed to the data interpretation. H.A.H., D.I. and R.W. wrote the paper. H.A.H., R.W., D.I., R.v.Z., K.S., S.M., D.M. and J.S. contributed to manuscript editing.

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Correspondence to Richard Wood.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information, Supplementary Figures 1-4, Supplementary Tables 1-13, Supplementary References 1–81

Supplementary Information Data File

Supplementary data and results, including all footprint data (aggregates and by producing sectors) and economic data

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Statistical code for regressions

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Hamilton, H.A., Ivanova, D., Stadler, K. et al. Trade and the role of non-food commodities for global eutrophication. Nat Sustain 1, 314–321 (2018).

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