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Friday, October 7, 2022

Nitrogen Fertilizer Urea production Locking in Fossil Fuels greenhouse gas emissions for industrial Food production


A new international report identifies Fossil Fuel fertilisers as an important growth area for coal and gas sectors  as part of the petrochemical industry. Plastics and Nitrogen fertilisers are both products of fossil fuels that continue to lock us in to systemic fossil fuel consumption. 

Fossil fertilisers create greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of production to their use in industrial agriculture. They lock our food system productivity into continued greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal or Gas are major sources for nitrogen fertiliser, turning methane into Ammonia through steam reformation, and then into Urea and water. 

Here in Victoria the recently published Victorian Greenhouse Gas emissions report to 2020 highlighted the increased Urea use, while this detail was buried very deeply in the report and few have commented on the massive expansion of Urea use in Victorian agriculture over the last thirty years. (See lead graph for Victoria Urea application.)

"The total area of crop cultivation almost doubled, from 1.8 to 3.5 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, while the application of fertilisers increased from just under 50,000 to 328,000 tonnes of nitrogen (an increase of 561%) over this period. This also contributed to a significant increase in urea application emissions which grew nearly seven-fold between 1990 and 2020 (Figure 40), with particularly strong growth in the last decade (DCCEEW 2022a)." said the Victoria report.

 The CIEL report also highlights that Nitrogen fertilizers such as Urea lock in increase in food prices, diminishment of food security, to fossil fuel prices. As gas prices increase, the cost of Urea for use as an agricultural fertiliser escalates, increasing crop and farm production costs, and hence having a flow on effect on food prices in our green grocers and supermarkets.



The CIEL report articulates that Fossil fertilizers are "an underrecognized driver of climate change, biodiversity loss, and toxic pollution, and yet the fertilizer industry is increasingly portraying itself as part of the solution to these converging planetary crises."

Agrochemical producers are using promises of carbon capture and fossil fuel-derived hydrogen and ammonia to claim "clean credential fors business-as-usual production to green their image.

Here in Australia we have the example of Strike Energy’s fast-tracked $3 billion urea plant as an  example of hydrogen greenwashing. (Renew Economy, 3 Feb 2022, Why Strike Energy’s fast-tracked urea plant is latest example of hydrogen greenwashing)

"But the company’s documents show the project will be almost entirely dependent on fossil gas as its primary feedstock.

ASX disclosures show that Strike Energy expects that the plant’s feedstock will consist of just 1.25 per cent hydrogen. The remainder, 98.75 per cent of feedstock, will be met through Strike Energy’s own supplies of fossil gas.

The small proportion of hydrogen used, according to Strike Energy, will reduce the emissions intensity of the facility by just 0.01 tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions released per tonne of urea produced."

Analysis of the project’s emissions footprint completed by consultancy Acil Allen for the project shows that most of the comparative emissions reductions that the project may deliver are primarily result of localising manufacturing and the use of the gas from Strike Energy’s Perth Basin projects as opposed to coal used by overseas producers." writes Michael Marzengarb in Renew Economy.

The CIEL report highlights Australia's funding of CCS and blue hydrogen projects. It  highlights one company the Norwegian company Yara with a production facility based in the Pilbara - in trying to green its image with a small proportion of green ammonia production:

 "Yara is developing green ammonia projects in Australia and the Netherlands, among other locations. The Australian project will allow for green hydrogen production at Yara’s ammonia facility in Pilbara and will initially produce 3,700 tonnes of green ammonia per year. On average, the Pilbara plant produces over 800,000 tonnes of ammonia per year,388 so nearly all of the ammonia production will continue to rely on fossil fuels."

Further on Yara Pilbara Blue Ammonia production:

"In addition to pursuing a small green ammonia demonstration at its Pilbara site in western Australia, Yara is planning to do CCS at its existing Pilbara ammonia plant, thereby producing blue ammonia that the company aims to supply to the Japanese power sector through an agreement with JERA (Japan’s largest power company)."

This graphic explains the process of conversion of coal or gas to Ammonia and Urea:


Lili Fuhr, Deputy Director of Climate & Energy and co-author of the report said,

“Fossil fertilizers enable a corporate-controlled model for industrial agriculture that pushes monocultures and high-yields while sending humanity hurtling toward dangerously risky territory. Just like carbon in the atmosphere and microplastics in our soils and waters: fossil fertilizers and pesticides are fossil fuel pollution. Untethering global food production from fossil fuels is essential to advancing both climate justice and food sovereignty. We need to close the oil and gas tab for the agrochemical industry if we truly want to scale up resilient, regenerative models of food production so that ecosystems and the communities that depend on them can thrive.”

This graph shows the Global trend for Nitrogen fertilizer production:

 

Key Report Findings on Fossil Fertilizer Use

At a time of surging fossil fuel and fertilizer prices and related impacts on food and energy security contributing to cost of living pressures, the CIEL report finds: 

  • Fossil fertilizers have significant climate impacts all along their life cycle and are major drivers of biodiversity loss and toxic pollution. 
  • Rather than reducing reliance on these chemicals and transitioning away from the fossil economy, fertilizer companies are promoting the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to make fossil gas-based hydrogen and ammonia as inputs for industrial agriculture and as new combustible fuels.
  • These risky technologies prolong reliance on fossil fuels on the myth that they can be made “low carbon,” but instead entrench dependence on oil and gas, prop up industries that need to be phased out, and increase harms to people and the planet. 
  • Efforts to remake fertilizer businesses as “clean energy companies” serve to greenwash polluting operations, cash in on generous new government subsidies for CCS and hydrogen, and expand market access – not solve the climate crisis. 
  • Fertilizer and fossil fuel companies are operating or actively exploring dozens of new or expanded production facilities in at least nine countries across the world, including projects in eight US states already affected by polluting industries. 
  • Deep connections and close ties between the fossil fuel and agrochemical industries, including through shared board members, overlapping corporate ownership structures, or agrochemical companies’ direct engagement in fossil fuel production dangerously tether food systems to the fossil economy. 

So what are solutions to Fossil Fertilizer Use?

The CIEL report points to solutions without going into any depth. The final report conclusion states: 

There are many alternatives to synthetic fertilizer and pesticide usage with sustainable farming models that minimize or eliminate reliance on petroleum-based agrochemicals. From agroecology to organic agriculture to regenerative farming systems, a multitude of alternative models exist to transform agriculture to be healthier and more resilient while feeding communities with better food.

A conversation on how we can achieve those transformations must start long before toxic agrochemicals enter our soils. As with the climate and plastic pollution crises, we have seen that addressing the problem at its roots requires confronting fossil fuel pollution along the entire life cycle. At a time of surging fossil fuel, fertilizer, and food prices, and with the escalating climate crisis as a backdrop, the case for truly transitioning away from fossil fertilizer and fossil fuels altogether has never been clearer.

Certainly urban farming such as demonstrated locally in Melbourne at CERES Environmental Park and Joe's Market Garden, Fawkner Food Bowls or the Melbourne SkyFarm, show what is possible with permaculture and urban composting for sustainable urban agriculture that increase urban resilience and food security. 

Indeed, research published August 2022 shows that Urban crops can have higher yields than conventional farming.

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