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

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