The social costs of nitrogen

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Science Advances  05 Oct 2016:
Vol. 2, no. 10, e1600219
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600219


Despite growing recognition of the negative externalities associated with reactive nitrogen (N), the damage costs of N to air, water, and climate remain largely unquantified. We propose a comprehensive approach for estimating the social cost of nitrogen (SCN), defined as the present value of the monetary damages caused by an incremental increase in N. This framework advances N accounting by considering how each form of N causes damages at specific locations as it cascades through the environment. We apply the approach to an empirical example that estimates the SCN for N applied as fertilizer. We track impacts of N through its transformation into atmospheric and aquatic pools and estimate the distribution of associated costs to affected populations. Our results confirm that there is no uniform SCN. Instead, changes in N management will result in different N-related costs depending on where N moves and the location, vulnerability, and preferences of populations affected by N. For example, we found that the SCN per kilogram of N fertilizer applied in Minnesota ranges over several orders of magnitude, from less than $0.001/kg N to greater than $10/kg N, illustrating the importance of considering the site, the form of N, and end points of interest rather than assuming a uniform cost for damages. Our approach for estimating the SCN demonstrates the potential of integrated biophysical and economic models to illuminate the costs and benefits of N and inform more strategic and efficient N management.

  • Nitrogen
  • ecosystem services
  • nonmarket valuation
  • damage costs
  • social cost of carbon
  • water quality
  • agriculture

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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