New Research Shows 50-Year Binge on Chemical Fertilisers Must End to Address the Climate Crisis

New Research Shows 50-Year Binge on Chemical Fertilisers Must End to Address the Climate Crisis

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The rising costs of synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilisers, triggered by a spike in natural gas prices, has governments panicking about a catastrophic global food crisis.[1] At the same time, new research shows that synthetic N fertilisers are a major driver of the climate crisis, responsible for 1 out every 40 tonnes of GHGs currently pumped into the atmosphere.[2] As the 26th UN Climate Change Conference gets underway, now is the time for the world to kick its addiction to synthetic N fertilisers and urgently transition to farming without fossil fuels and chemicals.

The new research– undertaken by three scientists working with Greenpeace, IATP and GRAIN– provides the first estimate of the global climate impacts of synthetic N fertilisers to cover the entire production chain, from manufacturing to soil application. It finds that the production and use of synthetic N fertiliser accounts for 2.4% of global emissions, making it one of the top climate polluting industrial chemicals. The synthetic N fertiliser supply chain was responsible for estimated emissions of 1,250 million tonnes of CO2e in 2018, which is roughly 21.5% of the annual direct emissions from agriculture (5,800 million tonnes). For comparison, the global emissions from commercial aviation in 2018 were around 900 million tonnes of CO2.[3]

The majority of emissions from synthetic N fertilisers occur after they are applied to the soil and enter the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O)- a persistent greenhouse gas with 265 times more global warming potential than CO2. But, what is less discussed is that almost 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions of synthetic N fertilisers occur in production and transport, largely in the form of CO2 caused by the burning of fossil fuels during manufacture. Added up, a full accounting of emissions from synthetic N fertiliser shows how it is a major source of climate pollution that needs to be rapidly and drastically reduced.

Synthetic N fertilisers have increased by a whopping 800% since the 1960s according to the IPCC[4], and the new research confirms that climate pollution from their production and use is on course to get much worse if actions are not taken to reverse these trends (Graphic 1). Worldwide use of synthetic N fertilisers is set to increase by over 50% by 2050, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The research also finds that emissions from synthetic N fertilisers are highly concentrated in certain geographic areas. The main emitters are China, India, North America and Europe. But, on a per capita basis, the highest emitters are the big agricultural export countries of North America (US and Canada), South America (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay) Australia/New Zealand and Europe (Denmark, France, Ireland, Ukraine). Worldwide, emissions keep growing every year, including in Africa, where fertiliser use is now growing rapidly.

A not-so-green revolution

Since the 1960s, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the multilateral development banks such as the World Bank, governments, donors and agribusiness corporations to support the widespread adoption of a so-called “green revolution” model of agriculture. This model is based on the development and adoption of varieties of certain staple crops (mainly wheat, rice and maize) that are short and stocky (called semi-dwarf) and capable of producing high yields when heavily dosed with chemical fertilisers and sprayed with pesticides.

By way of massive government programmes and subsidies, the green revolution varieties quickly replaced local varieties and generated a huge boom in the global use of chemical fertilisers. They also kicked in a vicious cycle, in which more and more chemical fertilisers had to be applied to sustain yields. Today, only around 20-30% of the synthetic N fertilisers applied to fields are converted to foods, with the rest running off into water bodies and entering the environment as pollution.[5] Not only is this heating up the planet, but it is also destroying the ozone layer and causing a global crisis of algae blooms and oceanic “dead zones”.[6]

Some say the green revolution enabled production to meet the increasing global demand for food, but the narrow focus on a small number of crops and on varieties dependent on chemical inputs caused numerous environmental and social problems.[7] It also distracted from other approaches that could have increased food production without generating the massive consumption of chemical fertilisers. And it has left the world vulnerable to food price spikes and shortages triggered or exacerbated by rising prices for chemical fertilisers and their inputs, as we are now seeing with the energy crisis hitting many countries. Today, these agro-chemicals are controlled by a small number of global corporations that wield enormous political clout, such as the Norwegian nitrogen fertiliser giant Yara.

The fertiliser lobby has spent several decades maintaining that the excessive use of synthetic N fertiliser can be resolved through more precise application– what they call “precision agriculture” or “climate-smart agriculture”.[8] Yet the new research on synthetic N fertiliser emissions finds no evidence that programmes to increase efficiency have had any significant impact. In most world regions, there has been no significant increase in crop production per unit of synthetic N fertiliser applied (Graphic 2). In Canada, for instance, farmers participating in the fertiliser industry’s “4R Nutrient Stewardship Programme” have actually ended up using more fertilisers and using them more inefficiently.[9] Canada’s emissions from synthetic N fertilisers have accelerated in recent years, alongside use rates, making it one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases from synthetic N fertilisers on a per capita basis (Graphic 3).

Another key driver behind today’s excessive use of N fertilisers is the ongoing decoupling of crops and livestock. A growing percentage of the world’s livestock is now raised on factory farms, and feedlots that dependent on industrial animal feeds, often produced in other countries. As a result, those farms now growing feed crops utilise synthetic N fertilisers, rather than the animal manure that would have traditionally provided their fields with nitrogen. The separation of livestock and crops, and the concentration of export production in certain parts of the world, has broken the soil nutrient cycle, and greatly increased the use of chemical fertilisers.[10]

What needs to be done?

If the world stands a chance at effectively dealing with the climate crisis, industrial farming systems that depend on synthetic N fertilisers and other chemical inputs must be replaced with agroecological farming systems that do not use chemicals and local food systems in which animals and feed sources are fully integrated.

This phase-out of synthetic N fertilisers must begin by replacing the green revolution varieties of crops with seeds that can thrive without the use of chemical fertilisers. The seed companies that now dominate the global seed market have not and will not pursue plant breeding in this direction. As pesticide manufacturers, they have a vested interest in the green revolution model. Change has to come from revitalising and supporting the farmer-based seed and knowledge systems that are best able to provide seeds and practices adapted to local conditions and able to produce nutritious and abundant food without chemicals. Similarly, farmer knowledge of organic fertilisers and alternatives to building soil fertility, which has been lost to much of the world, needs to be rebuilt, shared and implemented so that the current dependency on chemical fertilisers can be overcome.[11]

A global phase-out of synthetic N fertilisers must also be accompanied by a phase-out of industrial livestock. Industrial feed, meat and dairy production is not only a major driver of synthetic N fertiliser use, but a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions and a major killer of forests and biodiversity.[12]

Technical and economic obstacles are not what is standing in the way of a global phase-out of synthetic N fertilisers. It is the hold of the agribusiness lobby on powerful governments that must be confronted and broken to affect meaningful change. The fertiliser industry, and its business and government allies, are peddling a false notion that emissions can be sufficiently reduced through a more precise application of fertilisers, without any major changes to the industrial model of agriculture and the structure of the global food system. This is simply not true, and a dangerous distraction from the industry’s ongoing efforts to ramp up fertiliser use, especially now in Africa.

Agribusiness corporations have a vested interest in the heavy use of synthetic N fertilisers– from the giant N fertiliser companies like Yara and CF Industries, to the seed and pesticide companies like Bayer and Syngenta, to the corporations that control the trade in meat, dairy and animal feed like Cargill and Bunge. The market for synthetic N fertilisers alone is worth over US$70 billion.[13] They will continue to promote and defend synthetic N fertilisers at all policy-making levels, including at COP 26.

People and the planet must come before corporate profits. There needs to be a global phase-out of N synthetic fertilisers if we are to end agriculture’s contribution to the climate and other ecological crises. That phase-out must start now.

Graphic 1. Consumption of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser from 1961 up to 2018, in tonnes of nitrogen

Graphic 2. Crop production (tonnes) per unit of synthetic N fertiliser applied

Graphic 3. Synthetic N fertiliser carbon footprint per capita (tCO2e/capita)

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Notes

[2] Stefano Menegat, Alicia Ledo and Reyes Tirado, “Greenhouse gas emissions from global production and use of nitrogen synthetic fertilisers in agriculture”, Research Square Preprints, 22 October 2021: https://doi.org/10.21203/rs.3.rs-1007419/v1
[5] Billen, G., Garnier, J. & Lassaletta, L. The nitrogen cascade from agricultural soils to the sea: modelling nitrogen transfers at regional watershed and global scales. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B: Biol. Sci.368, 20130123 (2013).
[10] J. Wang, et al, “International trade of animal feed: its relationships with livestock density and N and P balances at country level,” Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 110, 197–211 (2018): https://doi.org/10.1007/s10705-017-9885-3
[12] Kate Dooley, Doreen Stabinsky, “Missing Pathways to 1.5°C”, Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance, 2018: https://www.clara.earth/missing-pathways

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U.S. Militarism’s Toxic Impact on Climate Policy

U.S. Militarism’s Toxic Impact on Climate Policy

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President Biden addressed the UN General on September 21 with a warning that the climate crisis is fast approaching a “point of no return,” and a promise that the United States would rally the world to action. “We will lead not just with the example of our power but, God willing, with the power of our example,” he said

But the U.S. is not a leader when it comes to saving our planet. Yahoo News recently published a report titled “Why the U.S. Lags Behind Europe on Climate Goals by 10 or 15 years.” The article was a rare acknowledgment in the U.S. corporate media that the United States has not only failed to lead the world on the climate crisis, but has actually been the main culprit blocking timely collective action to head off a global existential crisis.

The anniversary of September 11th and the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan should be ringing alarm bells inside the head of every American, warning us that we have allowed our government to spend trillions of dollars waging war, chasing shadows, selling arms and fueling conflict all over the world, while ignoring real existential dangers to our civilization and all of humanity.

The world’s youth are dismayed by their parents’ failures to tackle the climate crisis. A new survey of 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 in ten countries around the world found that many of them think humanity is doomed and that they have no future.

Three quarters of the young people surveyed said they are afraid of what the future will bring, and 40% say the crisis makes them hesitant to have children. They are also frightened, confused and angered by the failure of governments to respond to the crisis. As the BBC reported, “They feel betrayed, ignored and abandoned by politicians and adults.”

Young people in the U.S. have even more reason to feel betrayed than their European counterparts. America lags far behind Europe on renewable energy. European countries started fulfilling their climate commitments under the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s and now get 40% of their electricity from renewable sources, while renewables provide only 20% of electric power in America.

Since 1990, the baseline year for emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol, Europe has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 24%, while the United States has failed to cut them at all, spewing out 2% more than it did in 1990. In 2019, before the Covid pandemic, the United States produced more oil and more natural gas than ever before in its history.

NATO, our politicians and the corporate media on both sides of the Atlantic promote the idea that the United States and Europe share a common “Western” culture and values. But our very different lifestyles, priorities and responses to this climate crisis tell a tale of two very different, even divergent economic and political systems.

The idea that human activity is responsible for climate change was understood decades ago and is not controversial in Europe. But in America, politicians and news media have blindly or cynically parroted fraudulent, self-serving disinformation campaigns by ExxonMobil and other vested interests.

While the Democrats have been better at “listening to the scientists,” let’s not forget that, while Europe was replacing fossil fuels and nuclear plants with renewable energy, the Obama administration was unleashing a fracking boom to switch from coal-fired power plants to new plants running on fracked gas.

Why is the U.S. so far behind Europe when it comes to addressing global warming? Why do only 60% of Europeans own cars, compared with 90% of Americans? And why does each U.S. car owner clock double the mileage that European drivers do? Why does the United States not have modern, energy-efficient, widely-accessible public transportation, as Europe does?

We can ask similar questions about other stark differences between the United States and Europe. On poverty, inequality, healthcare, education and social insurance, why is the United States an outlier from what are considered societal norms in other wealthy countries?

One answer is the enormous amount of money the U.S. spends on militarism. Since 2001, the United States has allocated $15 trillion (in FY2022 dollars) to its military budget, outspending its 20 closest military competitors combined.

The U.S. spends far more of its GDP (the total value of goods produced and services) on the military than any of the other 29 Nato countries—3.7% in 2020 compared to 1.77%. And while the U.S. has been putting intense pressure on NATO countries to spend at least 2% of their GDP on their militaries, only ten of them have done so. Unlike in the U.S., the military establishment in Europe has to contend with significant opposition from liberal politicians and a more educated and mobilized public.

From the lack of universal healthcare to levels of child poverty that would be unacceptable in other wealthy countries, our government’s under-investment in everything else is the inevitable result of these skewed priorities, which leave America struggling to get by on what is left over after the U.S. military bureaucracy has raked off the lion’s share – or should we say the “generals’ share”? – of the available resources.

Federal infrastructure and “social” spending in 2021 amount to only about 30% of the money spent on militarism. The infrastructure package that Congress is debating is desperately needed, but the $3.5 trillion is spread over 10 years and is not enough.

On climate change, the infrastructure bill includes only $10 billion per year for conversion to green energy, an important but small step that will not reverse our current course toward a catastrophic future. Investments in a Green New Deal must be bookended by corresponding reductions in the military budget if we are to correct our government’s perverted and destructive priorities in any lasting way. This means standing up to the weapons industry and military contractors, which the Biden administration has so far failed to do.

The reality of America’s 20-year arms race with itself makes complete nonsense of the administration’s claims that the recent arms build-up by China now requires the U.S. to spend even more. China spends only a third of what the U.S. spends, and what is driving China’s increased military spending is its need to defend itself against the ever-growing U.S. war machine that has been “pivoting” to the waters, skies and islands surrounding its shores since the Obama administration.

Biden told the UN General Assembly that “…as we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy.” But his exclusive new military alliance with the U.K. and Australia, and his request for a further increase in military spending to escalate a dangerous arms race with China that the United States started in the first place, reveal just how far Biden has to go to live up to his own rhetoric, on diplomacy as well as on climate change.

The United States must go to the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow in November ready to sign on to the kind of radical steps that the UN and less developed countries are calling for. It must make a real commitment to leaving fossil fuels in the ground; quickly convert to a net-zero renewable energy economy; and help developing countries to do the same. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says, the summit in Glasgow “must be the turning point” in the climate crisis.

That will require the United States to seriously reduce the military budget and commit to peaceful, practical diplomacy with China and Russia. Genuinely moving on from our self-inflicted military failures and the militarism that led to them would free up the U.S. to enact programs that address the real existential crisis our planet faces – a crisis against which warships, bombs and missiles are worse than useless.

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Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Featured image is from CommonDreams

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