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Institution N footprints

Calculating Nitrogen Footprints at Universities and Institutions

Universities and other institutions have far-reaching impacts through activities like education and research; however their operations can also negatively impact the environment. The growing interest in sustainability has prompted many educational institutions to assess their environmental impact through a carbon footprint. However, carbon footprints consider only part of a university’s environmental impact, generally related to fossil fuel energy consumption and the generation of greenhouse gases. A nitrogen footprint not only considers energy but also extends to a variety of other processes like food production and consumption, fertilizer usage, and—especially for a land grant institution—agricultural activities related to its educational and research missions. Universities and institutions are particularly well-situated to reduce nitrogen pollution because they can both educate a community and make management decisions to reduce their contribution to nitrogen pollution.


Institutions are particularly well-situated to reduce their nitrogen footprint because they can both educate a community and implement management strategies to reduce nitrogen pollution.

The institution-level Nitrogen Footprint Tool (NFT) has just completed a pilot testing phase and will soon be available publicly. This tool was initially developed to calculate the nitrogen footprint of the University of Virginia, and the tool has since been updated and expanded to allow other universities and institutions to calculate their nitrogen footprint. A first cohort of universities and institutions (Brown University, Colorado State University, Dickinson College, Eastern Mennonite University, Marine Biological Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, Colorado College) have just reported their nitrogen footprint results in the April 2017 special issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record

Within the Nitrogen Footprint Tool (NFT) Network, 8 institutions have completed nitrogen footprint assessments through a pilot testing program. The results range from 7 metric tons (MT) N at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole to 444 MT N at the University of Virginia in calendar year 2014. Institution population, location, physical size, and activities contribute to the magnitude of nitrogen footprint results. The nitrogen footprint of food production makes up about half of total institution footprints due to the large amount of reactive nitrogen lost to the environment from fertilizer, harvest, animal production, and processing waste. Utilities, usually consisting of purchased electricity and on-site heat and steam generation, contribute a large portion of institution nitrogen footprints because of the nitrous oxide (N2O) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) released by the combustion of fossil fuel.

The NFT enables institutions to measure and track the release of reactive nitrogen to the environment by their direct and indirect activities. Tracking in turn allows institutions to address the issue of excess reactive nitrogen in the environment by identifying strategies that have the potential to reduce their impact. The NFT has projection and scenario capabilities that allow institutions to estimate the impact of management strategies such as choosing more plant-based sources of protein in dining halls, switching to renewable sources of energy, improving energy efficiency on campus, and reducing waste. A combination of strategies may be tailored for each institution to define its own nitrogen footprint reduction goals, and institutions that do so will lead the way in addressing the environmental impact of their activities.