Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Something stinks. Could it be the urea?

Except for a few crazies, especially here in the US, we recognize that climate change is one heck of an environmental problem that we face, right?

Suppose for a moment that we were not worried about climate change.  Just suppose.  What do you think will be our greatest ever worry?

Hint: it makes up for most (78 percent) of earth's atmosphere too.

Yep, nitrogen.
According to “The European Nitrogen Assessment”, a hefty tome Sutton and his colleagues produced four years ago, pollution by nitrogen-based compounds then cost the European Union between €70 billion and €320 billion a year; the whole world’s bill might handily top a trillion. Were it not for climate change, this would probably be the environmental problem the world discussed the most.
How did we get here?

It all began slightly more than a century ago when two Germans, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, developed the science and technology to grab nitrogen from the air and convert that into a form that plants can use--the fertilizer industry was born.  And with that, well, we were able to dispatch the old Malthusian argument to his grave as well.
In 1913, there were about 1.7 billion people in the world, and the factory fixed about 7,300 tons of nitrogen in its first year. Today there are 7 billion of us and more than 120 million tons of nitrogen are produced every year using techniques that haven’t changed all that much. More than 80 percent of that reactive nitrogen goes into fertilizers for agriculture.
And without this fertilizer industry?
Well, for starters, many of us wouldn’t be without it: Half of us wouldn’t be alive today if not for synthetic nitrogen. ... Another mind-blowing way to think about it: On average, half of the nitrogen in your body was synthetically fixed.
Yes, of course, our bodies have nitrogen.  "Nitrogen is a building block of all proteins and other molecules necessary for life, including DNA."

If we are here today in huge numbers and are so prosperous, what is the problem?
The world-changing benefits of this geoengineering have come with enormous costs. In the wrong places – which range from the inside of people’s lungs to the ozone layer, by way of dead zones in coastal seas, polluted drinking water and damaged soils – reac­tive nitrogen can do a great deal of harm.
I like how the author refers to this as "geoengineering."  Because, the nitrogen fertilizer use is not merely about plants and soil.  It is about so many different aspects of planet earth itself.  And we humans did that all in a century?  Of course, we are not done with using nitrogen this way--unless scientists figure out something better.  But then who knows what the consequences of that "something better" might be.  What a Faustian bargain!

An old 1977 "inland letter" of India's postal system, with an ad for Neyveli urea
Source

3 comments:

Ramesh said...

I am lost. I read through that article but it does not say what is the pollution and how is it related to urea usage. Only some vague references to ozone layer and people's lungs. Its just makes generic statement of "biggest disaster" and such other hyperbole, which is the surest way to turn off even an interested reader. After all nitrogen fixation is a natural process that happens all the time - so is the criticism that the artificial process made it far too quick and far too much ??

Very poor article you have quoted, I am afraid.

Anne in Salem said...

Regardless of my employer, I want to eat. Would be nice to hear some of the solutions being created, not just iterations of vague disasters. Until then, bring on the fertilizer!

Sriram Khé said...

The "article" is incorrect, Ramesh.
There are two articles that I have linked to:
http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_efficient_planet/2013/03/nitrogen_fixation_anniversary_modern_agriculture_needs_to_use_fertilizer.single.html, and
http://www.intelligentlifemagazine.com/the-music-of-science/the-wizardry-of-geoengineering

The one from Intelligent Life is the one that you refer to as having "hyperbole." To a large extent, the author writes in such terms because the nitrogen and fertilizer-related environmental damage is not anything new. I liked his take because of the suggestion in his essay that the nitrogen fertilizer has been not merely fertilizers and food and environmental damage but has been geoengineering.
The details you are looking for--you know, behind the "hyperbole"--you can find in the Slate article, which itself is two years old. I used that because I remembered having read that and it is packed with info and way more hyperlinks than you will ever want to read up on. I highly recommend that you read that Slate essay.

"Until then, bring on the fertilizer!" is not the kind of a response that I would look for, Anne. As both the articles that I have linked to make it very clear, half the humans would not be around today if it were not for the fertilizers. As one put it so well, half the "N" in our bodies are synthetic. It is phenomenal. However, "bring on the fertilizer!" vastly pooh-poohs the downside of the Faustian Bargain. Well, unless you so believe that there is no downside at all.
It is not easy for scientists and thinkers to come up with miraculous solutions. But, just because there is no solution today, it does not mean that we should not educate ourselves about the problems. The problems are not "vague disasters" either--some of them are even cataloged in that Slate essay. Or, check this briefing from the UNEP: http://www.unep.org/yearbook/2014/PDF/chapt1.pdf

Posts popular the last 30 days