My research examines the interconnected challenges of nitrogen pollution, food security and sustainable development, with a particular focus on: 1) the scientific, socioeconomic and legal dimensions of returning to a safe planetary boundary for nitrogen; and 2) balancing the multiple, and often competing objectives of sustainable agriculture – from environmental protection to human wellbeing. I use an interdisciplinary set of research methods to investigate these issues, from Earth Systems and economic time series modeling, to expert elicitation and legal analysis.

Current research projects

New policy Tools for nitrogen management

While technologies and practices exist to reduce nitrogen pollution in the agricultural sector, there has not been a significant increase in their use over the past several decades, even in highly industrialized agricultural sectors such as the U.S. The current U.S. approach of using voluntary initiatives to improve nutrient management at the farm-level has had little effect on nitrogen pollution levels. It should not be surprising that changing the practices of millions of farmers to reduce a diffuse pollution source is a challenge. Instead, what has often proven particularly effective in a U.S. context and elsewhere is when environmental policies have targeted a relatively small number of actors and pollution sources: for example, the six corporations controlling over half of the U.S. automobile market that were mandated by the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to increase the fuel efficiency of their vehicles. Within this set of cases, policies are often most successful when the small group of actors targeted by a policy can also financially benefit from it, such as DuPont under the Montreal Protocol. Consequently, this project asks whether agricultural nitrogen management efforts in the U.S. could target a smaller number of actors than the millions of farmers that are the focus of current policy? And if so, what would such a policy approach look like? My co-author, Tim Searchinger from the World Resources Institute and Princeton, and I argue that one approach would be to use the CAFE standards as a model for regulating the fertilizer industry.

Global nitrogen governance

The Paris Climate Agreement formally established the 2 degree target as the central goal of 21st century climate policy. The paltry carbon budget that would allow for a reasonable chance of reaching this target means that all climate mitigation options need to be considered, including non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases. Nitrous oxide is the second most important of these (with agriculture the dominant emissions source), and yet has been largely absent from academic and policy discussions. However, nitrous oxide emissions reductions could deliver considerable climate benefits and determine the viability of important mitigation options such as bioenergy and carbon sequestration. Moreover, the nitrogen atoms in nitrous oxide are part of the highly mobile nitrogen cycle, which enables one nitrogen atom to take on a number of chemical forms, each with its own specific environmental impacts and costs to society. This means that, if managed in a nuanced and systemic way that considers nitrogen pollution as a whole, nitrous oxide mitigation could deliver a suite of environmental co-benefits that would vastly outweigh the costs of action. Three main global governance options are being considered in this study, each with their own pros and cons: negotiating a new international agreement focused on nitrogen; harnessing an existing agreement that already manages, or has the authority to manage, a particular aspect of nitrogen pollution; and creating a more informal policy arena based on the building blocks approach that serves as a hub for the various institutions and actors whose activities are relevant to nitrogen management. Either of these options would face common challenges: how to successfully manage nitrogen’s multiple impacts across a range of spatial and temporal scales, and the difficulty of regulating farmer behavior. Nevertheless, a better understanding of these issues would not only be relevant to the management of nitrogen pollution, but could also help policy-makers develop viable climate mitigation strategies across the entire agricultural sector.

nitrogen and phosphorus pollution mitigation

Nitrogen is not the only essential nutrient in agriculture. Another important nutrient that also contributes to major environmental stresses (particularly water pollution) is phosphorus. And while nitrogen and phosphorus are often discussed together from an agronomic perspective (e.g. the importance of applying both to maximize yields, in addition to potassium and other micro-nutrients), they are rarely jointly examined from an environmental perspective. And yet there are a number of opportunities across different sectors of the economy to tackle nitrogen and phosphorus simultaneously - from better wastewater treatment, to more efficient livestock production practices, to reducing food waste and meat consumption. This project, with Will Brownlie from the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, investigates these opportunities and explores the links with other government efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement. We hope to demonstrate that a joint approach to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution could deliver a multitude of environmental and economic co-benefits.

protecting the climate without destroying the ozone layer

Nitrous oxide is the third most important greenhouse gas and the largest remaining threat to the stratospheric ozone layer. While emissions scenarios projecting nitrous oxide’s potential future contributions to climate change are widely available, the impact of these emissions scenarios on future stratospheric ozone depletion is less clear. This is because nitrous oxide’s ozone destructiveness is partially dependent on tropospheric warming, which affects ozone depletion rates in the stratosphere. As a result, in order to understand the possible range of stratospheric ozone depletion that nitrous oxide could cause over the 21st century, it is important to decouple the greenhouse gas emissions scenarios and compare different emissions trajectories for individual substances (e.g. business-as-usual carbon dioxide emissions versus low emissions of nitrous oxide). This project is the first to follow such an approach, running a series of experiments using the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Sciences ModelE2 atmospheric sub-model. We anticipate our results to show that stratospheric ozone depletion will be highest in a scenario where carbon dioxide emissions reductions are prioritized over nitrous oxide reductions, as this would constrain ozone recovery while doing little to limit stratospheric nitrogen oxide levels (the breakdown product of nitrous oxide that destroys stratospheric ozone). This could not only delay the recovery of the stratospheric ozone layer, but might also prevent a return to pre-1980 global average ozone concentrations, a key goal of the international ozone regime. Accordingly, we think this will highlight the importance of reducing emissions of all major greenhouse gas emissions, including nitrous oxide, and not just a singular policy focus on carbon dioxide.


Kanter D., Wentz J., Galloway J., Moomaw W.R., Winiwarter, W. 2017. Managing a forgotten greenhouse gas: An interdisciplinary analysis. Environmental Science & Policy. 67:44-51  PDF

Kanter D., Musumba M., Palm C., Andelman S., Antle J., Balvanera P., Havlik P., Thorne P., Thornton P., Tittonnell P. 2016. Evaluating agricultural trade-offs in the age of sustainable development. Agricultural Systems,

 Kanter D., Schwoob M., Baethgen W., Dobermann A. et al. 2016. Translating the Sustainable Development Goals into action: A participatory backcasting approach for developing national agricultural transformation pathways. Global Food Security, 10:71-79

 Kanter D., Zhang X., Shevliakova E., Malyshev S., Mauzerall D.L. 2016. The importance of climate change and nitrogen use efficiency for future nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture. Environmental Research Letters, 11 (2016) 094003

 Haden V.R., Liptzin D., Rosenstock T.S., Vanderslice J., Brodt S., Yeo B.L., Dahlgren R., Scow K., Riddell J., Feenstra G., Oliver A., Thomas K., Kanter D., and Tomich T.P. 2016. Chapter 5: Ecosystem Services and Human Well-Being. In Tomich T.P. et al. (eds.) California Nitrogen Assessment. University of California Press

 Kanter D., Zhang X., Mauzerall D.L. 2015. Reducing agricultural nitrogen pollution while decreasing farmers’ costs and increasing fertilizer industry profits. Journal of Environmental Quality, 44(2):325-335

 Zhang X., Mauzerall. D.L., Davidson E., Kanter D., Cai R. 2015. The economic and environmental consequences of implementing nitrogen-efficient technologies and management practices in agriculture. Journal of Environmental Quality, 44(2):312-324

 Davidson E. and Kanter D. 2014. Inventories and scenarios of nitrous oxide emissions. Environmental Research Letters, 9:105012

Davidson E., Kanter D., Suddick E.C., Syntharalingham P. 2013. Chapter 3: N2O: Sources, Inventories, Projections, in Alcamo J. et al. Drawing down N2O emissions to protect climate and the ozone layer, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi, Kenya.

Sutton M.A., Skiba U.M., Davidson E., Kanter D. 2013. Chapter 8: Drawing Down N2O Emissions: Scenarios, Policies and the Green Economy, in Alcamo J. et al. Drawing down N2O emissions to protect climate and the ozone layer, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi, Kenya.

 Kanter D., Mauzerall D.L., Ravishankara A.R., Daniel J.S., Portmann R.W., Grabiel P., Moomaw W., Galloway J.N. 2013. A post-Kyoto partner: Considering the stratospheric ozone regime as a tool to manage nitrous oxide. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 110(12):4451-4457

Robertson G.P., Bruulsema T.W., Gehl R.J., Kanter D, Mauzerall D.L., Rotz C.A., Williams C.O. 2013. Nitrogen-climate interactions in US agriculture. Biogeochemistry, 114:41-70

Robertson G.P., Bruulsema T.W., Gehl R.J., Kanter D, Mauzerall D.L., Rotz C.A., Williams C.O. 2012.Climate-Nitrogen Interactions in Agriculture. In: Suddick, E.C., Davidson, E.A.(eds.) The Role of Nitrogen in Climate Change and the Impacts of Nitrogen-Climate Interactions on Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecosystems, Agriculture, and Human Health in the United States. A Technical Report Submitted to the US National Climate Assessment. North American Nitrogen Center of the International Nitrogen Initiative (NANC-INI), Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, MA, USA.

Miller D.J., Sun K., Zondlo M.A., Kanter D, Dubovik O., Welton E.J., Winkler D., Ginoux P. 2011. Assessing boreal forest fire smoke aerosol impacts on U.S. air quality: a case study using multiple datasets. Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres, 116:D22209

Mate J., Davies K., Kanter D. 2009. The Risks of Other Greenhouse Gases. Chapter in State of the World 2009. Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C., USA.