Spatially differentiated marine eutrophication method for absolute environmental sustainability assessments

Marine eutrophication and hypoxia caused by excess nutrient availability is a growing environmental problem. In this study, we explore marine nitrogen enrichment in the context of Absolute Environmental Sustainability Assessment (AESA), a method combining life cycle assessment (LCA) with environmental boundaries aiming to compare environmental impacts from an activity (product or system) with the safe operating space (SOS) for the activity. Specifically, we aim to increase the spatial resolution and improve life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) models for marine eutrophication for use in AESAs. By estimating a proxy of the areal extent of eutrophication and hypoxia in coastal large marine ecosystems (LME), we increased model resolution from 66 LMEs in the original LCIA method to 289 coastal LME subsegments and updated relevant LME parameters to the new scale (residence time, bottom water volume, reference O-2 concentration, primary production rates and depths). The new method was tested and validated by comparing the global and spatially differentiated occupation of SOS by global nitrogen emissions with observations and it showed an improved ability to identify critical areas where the SOS is exceeded, in accordance with observations of hypoxic events. Despite limitations such as the estimation of benthic zone volume and low spatial differentiation of environmental boundaries, the method can be used by AESA and LCA practitioners wishing to assess the impact of nitrogen release on marine eutrophication with a higher and more relevant spatial resolution.