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Living beyond our means: the nitrogen edition

15 July 2016

The catalyst

Grace Hanley, OECD Environment Directorate

How did a recently-promoted German janitor use uranium to change the course of history and prove the President of British Association for the Advancement of Science right? In his 1898 presidential address, Sir William Crookes told the Association that: “England and all civilised nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat … the land that will grow wheat is absolutely dependent on difficult and capricious natural phenomena … It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty… The fixation of atmospheric nitrogen is one of the great discoveries, awaiting the genius of chemists.” The genius was Fritz Haber, who has renounced his Judaism in the hope of getting a university job. He got one as a janitor at Karlsruhe University, but by 1898 had worked his way up to a professorship. He used uranium as a catalyst to produce ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen in 1909, a process that BASF engineer Carl Bosch helped him to scale up to commercial viability by 1912.

The Haber-Bosch process enabled artificial fertilizer to be manufactured massively and cheaply, and we still use a modified Haber-Bosch process today. Chemical factories now produce more nitrogen than the microbes in the soil do, but while this has boosted agricultural productivity and allowed world population to continue expanding, it has also caused devastating pollution.

The main problem is that nitrogen is used inefficiently by the agricultural industry, which triggers enormous nitrogen losses to the environment, resulting in ecosystem degradation and biodiversity losses as well damaging the land and water. The ammonium nitrates contained in fertilizers are easily soluble, which allows rainfall to carry them into run-off water and seep into water supplies, causing algal blooms and oxygen depletion in the water. Such effects devastate ecosystems and create ocean dead zones.

Research has also implicated nitrogen’s role in climate change, and it is critical that we take collective action to reduce it. There’s a lot of talk about carbon footprints, but we are only beginning to hear about the realities of our nitrogen footprint. As assistant professor at New York University, and recent visitor to the OECD David R. Kanter suggests, there is a need to better integrate nitrogen concerns in domestic policies and room in international law to include nitrogen. In fact, there really is no room to exclude nitrogen because we cannot afford the costs of reparation if we continue business as usual.

Kanter argues that nitrogen could be included in one of the most successful treaties in international law: The Montreal Protocol, where there was universal ratification by all 197 parties to protect against substances that deplete the ozone layer. The Protocol is a landmark of sustainable development and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. As nitrogen in the atmosphere contributes to ozone depletion, it is important that it is explicitly included.

Chemists often talk about balances, as so do bankers, and the financial world could provide us with some useful lessons, or stark warnings, about what happens when you get the balance wrong. Take the 2007-08 crisis in the United States for example. The big banks supported unrealistic subprime housing loans to people who would likely never be able to pay them off. This allowed people to purchase impressive homes and spend money they didn’t have for a time—until it all came crashing down. Long story short, reality set in and it put the entire US economy in turmoil, which escalated into a global financial and economic crisis.

What does this have to do with nitrogen? The first lesson is that the crisis was avoidable. Had realistic standards and regulations been put into place, the financial climate of 2007-08 would have looked drastically different.  The same is true for nitrogen: if we co-operatively manage nitrogen efficiency and minimise the amount of excess nitrogen emitted into the environment, we will drastically improve our social, economic and environmental conditions in the coming years. Policymakers must create regional specific strategies and policy instruments to implement these in international and domestic legislation.

Let’s not follow the example of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. Fiscally, we have seen how living beyond our means has serious consequences. However, government bailouts have enabled us to tolerate the idea that living beyond our means isn’t fatal. There has always been an eventual—although not always ideal—solution to our fiscal woes. However, the environment is less forgiving. We don’t have the luxury of requesting bailout replenishment from Mother Nature. Rather, let’s take the example of the Montreal Protocol which attests to the importance of co-operation and regulation to ensure environmental and economic stability and get things back into balance.

Useful links

Nitrogen oxides (NOx ) emissions and intensities in Environment at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators

Nitrogen balance versus agricultural output in Towards Green Growth: Monitoring Progress: OECD Indicators

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