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Sci Adv. 2016 Oct 5;2(10):e1600219. eCollection 2016 Oct.

The social costs of nitrogen.

Author information

1
Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN 55108, USA.
2
Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN 55108, USA.; Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN 55108, USA.; Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN 55108, USA.
3
Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN 55108, USA.
4
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.
5
Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN 55108, USA.

Abstract

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.

KEYWORDS:

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

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