Net Zero Is Not Just for Carbon Emissions — Now It’s Nitrogen

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[update, this article erroneously used the chemical symbol NO2 for nitrous oxide instead of N2O. This has been corrected – cr]


Francis Menton

In recent months the insane world-wide campaign against the emission of carbon into the atmosphere has not been going all that well for the zealots. Among other things, the Ukraine war has highlighted the fact that wind and solar electricity generators can’t really work on their own to power a modern economy. That has left places like Germany and the UK that built the most of them facing soaring energy prices and dependence on natural gas from Russia for backup. Those countries and others are in the process of being forced by reality to at least slow down on their march toward Net Zero as to carbon emissions.

But meanwhile, there’s another campaign for Net Zero that until recently has been flying mostly under the radar. That is the campaign against nitrogen. Nitrogen is the stuff that makes up about 80% of the atmosphere and you never even notice it’s there. It’s also essential for plant growth, but for that purpose needs to be combined with hydrogen. Farmers can give crops the nitrogen they need through animal manure, which is an excellent source, or through commercial fertilizer, which is made by taking nitrogen from the air and combining it with hydrogen from natural gas. Really, who could be against this?

The answer is that the usual environmental zealots, in coordination of course with the UN, have embarked on a war against nitrogen. Or maybe it’s a war on all agriculture, with nitrogen just being the excuse. You be the judge.

The war on nitrogen suddenly leapt into international public consciousness back about last December, when the country of Sri Lanka suddenly found itself facing an unanticipated famine. How did that happen? Here is a New York Times report from December 7, 2021, headline “Sri Lanka’s Plunge Into Organic Farming Brings Disaster.” It turns out that by “organic farming,” they mean, no use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer allowed. Sri Lanka had banned importation of the stuff in April 2021. The ban was part of a pledge to the UN to adopt (or maybe revert to) “sustainable” agricultural practices:

“Sustainable food systems are part of Sri Lanka’s rich sociocultural and economic heritage,” [President Gotabaya Rajapaksa] told a United Nations summit in September. “Our more recent past, however, saw increasing use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weedicides that led to adverse health and environmental impacts.”

It took only about seven months for disastrous food shortages to hit:

[F]armers and agriculture experts blame the [ban on fertilizers] policy for a sharp drop in crop yields and spiraling prices that are worsening the country’s growing economic woes and leading to fears of food shortages.

By last month there were massive protests, and on July 12 President Rajapaksa fled the country.

And it’s not just Sri Lanka. The Dutch farmer protests are also about the issue of nitrogen, rather than carbon. But in the Netherlands the issue does not appear to be use of chemical fertilizers. Rather, the Netherlands seems to be a center of raising animals for meat, and the nitrogen of concern is being emitted into the atmosphere from the animals’ manure. The proposed solution by the government is to force farmers to reduce their herds. From the Financial Times, August 3:

Millions of cows, pigs and chickens help to make the Netherlands an agricultural powerhouse. But the animals that contribute to €105bn in annual farm exports also generate something less desirable: alarming levels of nitrogen emissions from their waste. As emissions hit legal limits, the Dutch government has a drastic solution to its growing pollution problem. It wants to cut livestock numbers by a third, buying out farmers to close down production as part of its plan to halve emissions by 2030.

Is it even possible for nitrogen emissions (in the form of N2O) from animal waste to reach a sufficient atmospheric concentration, even at a local level, to endanger human health? People have been raising these animals for millennia.

And it appears that other countries are not far behind the Netherlands. For example, there’s Canada. From the Financial Post, July 27:

The government [of Canada] is proposing to cut emissions from fertilizer 30 per cent by 2030 as part of a plan to get to net zero in the next three decades. But growers are saying that to achieve that, they may have to shrink grain output significantly at a time when the world is scrambling for more supplies.

And from Hot Air, August 1:

There are already protests by farmers taking place in a number of countries besides the Netherlands, though the farmers there are currently drawing the most headlines. Similar uprisings are happening in Spain, Ireland, and New Zealand.

Is any of this really driven by bona fide concern about health effects of N2O the atmosphere, or is something else going on? You might be interested in an interview of British environmental zealot George Monbiot conducted August 2 on Irish state-run TV. A few excerpts:

“It’s by far and away the greatest cause of habitat destruction, the greatest cause of wildlife loss, the greatest cause of extinction, greatest cause of soil loss, greatest source of fresh water use. It’s one of the greatest causes of climate breakdown, bigger than transport. . . . We need to act as drastically within that sector as any other sector to prevent the collapse of our life support systems and what that means, above all else, is getting out of livestock farming is really shutting down animal farming altogether, because that has massively disproportionate impacts on the living planet, and we need to switch towards other sources of food plant-based diets which are far more efficient, far lower environmental impacts.”

Notice that he’s not talking at all about N2O emissions there. He just doesn’t think you should be able to eat meat.

Also, in case you’re wondering, here is the U.S. EPA’s chart of N20 concentrations in the atmosphere over the past 42 years since 1980:

Notice that that chart does not show annual emissions, but rather concentration in the atmosphere. The current concentration of N2O is under 50 parts per billion, representing a 64% drop from over 100 ppb back in 1980. We’re way under the national standard of 100 ppb.

Read the full article here.

via Watts Up With That?

August 8, 2022