Defining System Boundaries of an Institution Nitrogen Footprint. Academic Article uri icon


  • A nitrogen (N) footprint quantifies the amount of reactive nitrogen released to the environment and can be measured at different scales. The N footprint of a university includes activities and consumption within its geographic boundaries as well as activities that support the institution. Determining system bounds of an N footprint depends on the institution's mission and provides a common baseline for comparison. A comparison of three scopes of the N footprint, which describe how emissions are directly related to an institution's activities, was conducted for seven institutions. Scopes follow the established definition for the carbon footprint. In this article, the authors propose a new system bounds definition (core campus versus adjunct). Two case studies were explored: how the N footprint of Dickinson College changed with air travel, and how the N footprint of the Marine Biological Laboratory changed with scientific research. Of the three scopes, scope 3 was consistently the largest proportion of the N footprint for all seven institutions. The core campus activities of Dickinson College made up 99 percent of its N footprint, with air travel making up the remaining 1 percent. The Marine Biological Laboratory's core campus activities made up 51 percent of its N footprint and the scientific research made up the remaining 49 percent. Institutions should define system bounds based on their mission and stay consistent with their boundaries following the baseline year. The core campus footprint could be used to compare institution footprints using consistent system bounds. How institutions define their boundaries will impact the recorded amount of nitrogen as well as how the institution will set reduction strategies.

publication date

  • April 1, 2017