Excessive nitrogen has contaminated water supplies, contributed to the formation of acid rain, created massive oceanic dead-zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico, and caused and exacerbated noxious weed invasions.
This piece in Yale Environment 360 explores why and how we must greatly reduce the amount of nitrogen we put into the planet's ecosystems.
In 1908, the German chemist Fritz Haber discovered how to make ammonia by capturing nitrogen gas from the air. In the process he invented a cheap new source of nitrogen fertilizer, ending our dependence on natural sources, whether biological or geological. Nitrogen fertilizer fixed from the air confounded the mid-century predictions of Paul Ehrlich and others that global famine loomed. Chemical fertilizer today feeds about three billion people.
But the environmental consequences of the massive amounts of nitrogen sent coursing through the planet’s ecosystems are growing fast. We have learned to fear carbon and the changes it can cause to our climate. But one day soon we may learn to fear the nitrogen fix even more.
A major international survey published in September in Nature listed the nitrogen cycle as one of the three “planetary boundaries” that human interventions have disturbed so badly that they threaten the future habitability of the Earth.
The problem is that we waste most of Haber’s fertilizer. Of 80 million tons spread onto fields in fertilizer each year, only 17 million tons gets into food. The rest goes missing, washing into ecosystems.
This seems to be headed towards a classic instance in which solving an environmental problem ends up saving oodles of money by reducing waste. The solutions the article cites include breeding crops that are far more efficient at absorbing the nitrogen in fields, and developing farming systems that manage nitrogen far more efficiently.
Since vehicle emissions are another significant source of emissions, getting more efficient plug-in and electric vehicles out there will also help both slash emissions and benefit people (through lower fuel costs, alleviation of pollution-induced illness, and more).
As with climate change, this is ultimately a big big problem of motivating people. Thus, solutions will require as much communications Jujitsu as they will factual information about the benefits of these promising new directions.
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