How's Your Nitrogen Footprint?

UNH research leads the way for campuses to track nitrogen

Sunday, April 16, 2017
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Graduate student Allison Leach in front of a research poster

Allison Leach, a Ph.D. student in the Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science program, presents her research on nitrogen footprints at the Graduate Research Conference.

Cover of Sustainability Journal
Allison Leach was a guest editor of this special issue.

Sustainability leadership efforts at the University of New Hampshire have contributed to a groundbreaking initiative to measure and reduce the nitrogen footprint left behind by campus activities like food waste and energy consumption.

The new research is highlighted in the April special issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record. The publication outlines research being done at UNH and seven other institutions to reduce emissions of reactive nitrogen, which includes all forms of nitrogen except unreactive N2 gas, and prevent negative impacts on such things as water and air quality and climate change.

“Our goal is to make the nitrogen footprint a sustain­ability metric that all institutions across the world can track and manage,” says Allison Leach, a doctoral candidate in natu­ral resources and Earth systems science at UNH, a research associate at UNH’s Sustainability Institute and lead author of one of the featured studies in the journal. “A nitrogen footprint connects our everyday choices such as food, utilities and transit to nitrogen pollution in the environment. Reducing our nitrogen footprint is vital because it can negatively impact not only the environment but also human health, from effects like smog and acid rain to global climate change.”

Leach, who is also a guest editor on the special issue, worked with Jennifer Andrews, a project director at UNH’s Sustainability Institute, to integrate the Nitrogen Footprint Tool into the next generation Campus Carbon CalculatorTM, originally developed at UNH in cooperation with Clean Air-Cool Planet. A paper in the journal’s current publication focuses on that work and outlines a newly developed tool that will measure both campus carbon and nitrogen footprints. The online tool will be launched this fall and will give access to hundreds of campuses to record and keep track of their own nitrogen and carbon footprints.

“We have found that initiatives to reduce a campus's carbon footprint can also reduce its nitrogen footprint,” Leach says. “For example, at UNH, using a tool like this to reduce our nitrogen footprint could create local environmental benefits like improving the water quality of the Great Bay.”

The journal’s special issue features the first completed university-wide nitrogen footprint results. It brings together authors from eight institutions, including UNH, that make up the Nitrogen Footprint Tool (NFT) Network. The NFT helps estimate emissions of reactive nitrogen resulting from everyday institutional activities like campus food service, energy use, transportation, fertilizer on grounds and research activities. The publication features research, case studies and commentaries that call attention to the nitrogen footprint’s impact and ways individuals and administrators can reduce it with strategies like simple food choices — vegetable protein rather than meat protein — and switching to renewable energy.

Research by Andrews and John Aber, University Professor of natural resources and the environment, is also included in the issue.

Members of the NFT Network are the University of Virginia, University of New Hampshire, Marine Biological Laboratory, Dickinson College, Eastern Mennonite University, Colorado State University, Brown University and Colorado College. The work of the Nitrogen Footprint Tool was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Cooperative Agreement No. 83563201).

The UNH Sustainability Institute (UNHSI) is the nation’s oldest endowed sustainability program. UNHSI has a holistic approach to sustainability and incorporates it into the university’s education, research and practice. Key initiatives include the Sustainability Fellows Program, Climate Solutions New England, Food Solutions New England, NH Farm to School, the NH Food Alliance and the Campus Carbon Calculator.

Photographer: 
Jeremy Gasowski | Communications and Public Affairs | jeremy.gasowski@unh.edu | 603-862-4465