Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2018, Vol. 28 ›› Issue (11): 1567-1579.doi: 10.1007/s11442-018-1561-2

• Special Issue: Land system dynamics: Pattern and process • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Global prioritisation of renewable nitrogen for biodiversity conservation and food security

ROWAN Eisner1(), Leonie SEABROOK2, Clive MCALPINE2   

  1. 1. University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, Cambridge CB2 3QZ, UK
    2. Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, UQ, QLD 4072, Australia
  • Received:2017-02-20 Accepted:2017-09-15 Online:2018-11-20 Published:2018-11-20
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    Author: Eisner Rowan, E-mail:


The continuing use of petrochemicals in mineral nitrogen (N) production may be affected by supply or cost issues and climate agreements. Without mineral N, a larger area of cropland is required to produce the same amount of food, impacting biodiversity. Alternative N sources include solar and wind to power the Haber-Bosch process, and the organic options such as green manures, marine algae and aquatic azolla. Solar power was the most land-efficient renewable source of N, with using a tenth as much land as wind energy, and at least 100th as much land as organic sources of N. In this paper, we developed a decision tree to locate these different sources of N at a global scale, or the first time taking into account their spatial footprint and the impact on terrestrial biodiversity while avoiding impact on albedo and cropland, based on global resource and impact datasets. This produced relatively few areas suitable for solar power in the western Americas, central southern Africa, eastern Asia and southern Australia, with areas most suited to wind at more extreme latitudes. Only about 2% of existing solar power stations are in very suitable locations. In regions such as coastal north Africa and central Asia where solar power is less accessible due to lack of farm income, green manures could be used, however, due to their very large spatial footprint only a small area of low productivity and low biodiversity was suitable for this option. Europe in particular faces challenges because it has access to a relatively small area which is suitable for solar or wind power. If we are to make informed decisions about the sourcing of alternative N supplies in the future, and our energy supply more generally, a decision-making mechanism is needed to take global considerations into account in regional land-use planning.

Key words: concentrated solar, ammonia synthesis, biofixation