Fertilizer: a new battleground in the fight to solve the climate crisis

Fertilizer: a new battleground in the fight to solve the climate crisis

In a new report, The Center for International Environmental Law exposes how the fossil fuel industry seeks to increase the production of fossil-based agrochemicals. The report focuses on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (derived from fossil gas) and pesticides (derived from fossil gas and crude oil) which both contribute to global warming, biodiversity collapse, and toxic pollution. 

In the past 60 years, fertilizers have grown in use over 9x, with pesticides following a similar trajectory. Despite their widespread damage, the FAO estimates that nitrogen fertilizer use could grow another 50% by 2050.

Already, nitrogen fertilizers are responsible for more GHGs than commercial aviation (~2% of the global total), both because of their production but also because more than half of the nitrogen applied is not taken up by the plants and instead turns into nitrous oxide, a GHG with a warming potential about 265x that of carbon dioxide. Besides contributing to climate change, this excess nitrogen leads to eutrophication (excess nitrogen in our waterways) that results in dead zones that kill fish and other aquatic life. 

Beyond its environmental harm, the close ties between agrochemicals and fossil fuels leave food production at risk to fluctuations in the oil and gas markets, as was recently seen with Russia’s war in Ukraine. Delinking our food system from fossil fuels is an urgent task that will make our food supply more secure and less harmful to the environment.

Despite this, the fossil industry, facing an inevitable energy transition, is banking on growing the petrochemical market to buoy its profits. Currently, the synthetic ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer uses 3-5 percent of the world’s fossil gas but is projected to account for the largest share of the growth in global oil demand through 2026.  “In the IEA’s NZE scenario, by 2050, over half of fossil gas consumption is expected to go towards producing hydrogen, the key ingredient in ammonia that is the chemical base for nitrogen fertilizer.”

It should come as no surprise then that fossil fuel companies and agrochemical companies are cooperating with one another. The report’s investigation found that “of eight leading fertilizer companies examined for this report, seven showed extensive past or current ties to the fossil fuel industry through board interlocks, corporate ownership structures, or direct engagement in fossil fuel production.” 

Together these companies are trying to convince the public that they can reduce their climate impact through the widespread employment of two major false solutions: carbon capture and storage (CCS) and “blue hydrogen.”

Fertilizer and fossil fuel companies are working in tandem to plan and develop dozens of projects that use natural gas to produce blue hydrogen and blue ammonia - the denotation of “blue” indicates that they are sourced from methane. These companies are seeking to pass blue hydrogen as a sustainable combustible fuel, but the report asserts that the only true sustainable hydrogen is “green hydrogen” made through electrolysis of water using renewable energy.

The world must take heed of the fossil fuel and agrochemical industries’ strategies of trojan horsing their products under the name of “clean hydrogen.” In order to keep in-line with the Paris Agreement and limit warming to 1.5˚C, the world must abandon the highly polluting fossil-based model of agriculture. 

These two industries sit at the nexus of intersecting crises: climate change, biodiversity collapse, and toxic pollution. The report calls on the world to abandon those destructive methods in favor of facilitating the growth of resilient, regenerative models of food production.

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