Magical thinking about fertilizer and climate change


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Author: Timothy A. Wise, senior consultant of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, and senior researcher of the Institute of Global Development and Environment at Tufts University.Originally published on International News Service

As world leaders conclude the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, new scientific research shows that there are still a lot of magical ideas about the contribution of fertilizers to global warming.

Philanthropist Bill Gates encourages people to stay away from science in his book How to avoid climate disasters Earlier this year. “Fertilizers are magical to me,” he admits, especially nitrogen fertilizers. Under the beaming Gates photo at the Yara fertilizer distribution warehouse in Tanzania, he explained: “To grow crops, you need a lot of nitrogen-much more than you can find in the natural environment. [sic]… But nitrogen will make climate change worse. “

At least the last part is correct. New research shows that the impact of excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer on the climate is much more severe than previously estimated. Researchers estimate that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted by the nitrogen fertilizer supply chain is more than six times the greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted by the entire commercial aviation sector.

Nitrogen: a growing climate problem

In all respects, food and agriculture are Hardly on the agenda The United Nations Climate Summit, although the food system contributes about one-third of greenhouse gases. Direct emissions from food production account for about one-third of this, and the main source is livestock, mainly methane and manure emissions.

However, about 10% of direct emissions come from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers applied to crops. Only part of the fertilization is absorbed by the plant. Some are converted to nitrous oxide by soil microorganisms. Some will leach from the soil or volatilize into gas when applied. The cumulative effect is the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 265 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

Three scientists In cooperation with Greenpeace, the Agricultural and Trade Policy Research Institute, and GRAIN, the first comprehensive life cycle analysis of nitrogen fertilizer emissions was carried out. They used improved data on direct field emissions and combined emissions from nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing and transportation. The manufacturing industry relies heavily on natural gas, which accounts for 35% of the total greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizers.

The new estimate is a preliminary peer-reviewed estimate and is 20% higher than the estimate previously used by the United Nations. Not surprisingly, the largest emitters are the largest agricultural producers: China, India, North America and Europe. However, on a per capita basis, the largest emitters are major agricultural exporters: the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

Take Africa in the wrong direction

Africa is still not a big fertilizer producer, and the application rate is very low-about 15 kg/ha-but it has rapidly increased with the recent Green Revolution movement. Although Gates basically believes that the impact of chemical fertilizers on the climate is a necessary evil to achieve greater food security, more and more evidence shows that the green revolution approach itself is failing. My research It shows that in the 13 key countries of AGRA, yields have not increased significantly, and the number of undernourished people has increased by 31%.

The greater benefits promised by AGRA are not very good.

According to new fertilizer research, AGRA has taken Africa in the wrong direction. Globally, by 2050, the use of nitrogen fertilizers is expected to increase by 50% to 138%. It is estimated that Africa will grow by at least 300% in the next 30 years. If Gates acted his way, the effect would be much better.

The climate impact of this development path is worrying. An increase of 300% means an increase of 2.7 million tons (Mt) of nitrogen fertilizer in Africa. Field emissions are estimated to be 2.65 tons of greenhouse gases per ton of nitrogen, and another 4.35 tons from production and transportation. The total emissions are more like 7 tons of greenhouse gases per ton of nitrogen fertilizer.

By 2050, if the use of fertilizers in Africa increases by 300%, it will mean an increase of about 19 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year instead of the current emissions. Since greenhouse gases will accumulate in the atmosphere, and nitrous oxide will continue to exist for more than 100 years, if the use of chemical fertilizers increases by 300%, Africa will contribute 284 metric tons of greenhouse gases by 2050. If Gates and Agra get what they want, and Africa is close to the current global average of 137 kg/ha of nitrogen fertilizer, then Africa’s contribution will increase by 800%, and another 50 metric tons will be added by 2050, which is equivalent to the emissions from the deforestation of 500,000 hectares of the Amazon rainforest. Volume (approximately 1.2 million acres). By 2050, cumulative greenhouse gas emissions will reach 750 metric tons.

This is almost equal to the annual emissions of the entire commercial aviation sector.

“Climate Stupid Agriculture”

Bill Gates said that the only way to grow food is to use synthetic fertilizers, which is completely wrong. Crops need nitrogen, and in many areas, they can obtain most or all of the substances they need from improved agro-ecological agriculture. According to an article in “Nature” magazine, on a global scale, with the improvement of nutrient management practices, the use of synthetic fertilizers may be reduced by 48%, while grain production will not decrease.

The scientists who wrote the new report made three recommendations to reduce the greenhouse gases associated with the use of nitrogen fertilizers. Everyone questioned Gates’ model of the African Green Revolution:

    • • Choose an agricultural model that does not rely on synthetic fertilizers; intercropping with nitrogen-fixing crops has been shown to increase yields and improve soil.
    • • Re-incorporate livestock into crop cultivation, allowing more nutrients in manure to return to the land; now less than half.
    • Limit the growth of industrialized livestock production and consumption. Three quarters of the world’s nitrogen fertilizer is used to produce livestock feed.

The science is clear: African farmers are right to call the Green Revolution “climate stupid agriculture”.



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