Nitrogen is crucial for sustaining life. However, excessive reactive nitrogen (Nr) in the form of ammonia, nitrates, nitrogen oxides or nitrous oxides affects the quality of water, air and soil, resulting in human health risks. This study aims to assess the drivers of Nr emissions by analysing six determinants: nitrogen efficiency (Nr emissions per unit of production), production recipe (inter-sectoral dependencies), final demand composition (consumption baskets of households), final demand destination (consumption vs. investment balance), affluence (final consumption per capita) and population. To this end, we construct a detailed multi-regional input-output database featuring data on international trade between 186 countries to undertake a global structural decomposition analysis of a change in global Nr emissions from 1997 to 2017. Our analysis shows that nitrogen efficiency has improved over the assessed time-period, however affluence, final demand destination and population growth have resulted in an overall increase in Nr emissions. We provide a global perspective of the drivers of nitrogen emissions at a detailed country level, and breakdown the change in emissions into contribution from domestic footprint and rest-of-world footprint. We highlight that food production coupled with growing international trade is increasing Nr emissions worldwide.