- In 2050 anthropogenic sources will contribute up to 80% to river nutrient loading
- Curbing the global nutrient cycles requires paradigm shifts in food and waste systems
- N:P ratios in global rivers will further increase due to selective system retention of P
- Waste systems need to change from a disposal orientation towards conservation
This global spatially explicit (0.5 by 0.5 degree) analysis presents the nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) inputs, processing and biogeochemical retention and delivery to surface waters and river export to coastal seas according to the five shared socioeconomic pathways (SSP). Four systems are considered: (i) human system; (ii) agriculture; (iii) aquaculture; (iv) nature. In this study, the Global Nutrient Model (GNM) is used and coupled to the global hydrological model PCR-GLOBWB.
Exploring the changes during 1980–2015 and 2015–2050 according to the SSPs shows that the natural nutrient sources have been declining in the past decades and will continue to decline in all SSPs in future decades due to massive land transformations, while agriculture, human sewage and aquaculture are becoming increasingly dominant (globally up to 80% of nutrient delivery). More efforts than those employed in any of the SSPs are needed to slow down the global nutrient cycles.
One of the drivers of the proliferation of harmful algal blooms is the tendency towards increasing N:P ratios in global freshwaters and export to the global coastal seas; this is the result of increasing N:P in inputs in food production, more efficient biogeochemical retention of P than of N in river basins, and groundwater N legacies, which seems to be most pronounced in a united world that strives after sustainability. The diverging strategies to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals 14 (life below water), 2 (zero hunger) and 6 (clean water and sanitation) therefore require a balanced management system for both N and P in all systems, that accounts for future nutrient legacies.