The green economy provides an entry point for some innovative, perhaps radical, re-thinking of how we manage the earth’s natural resources. While tremendous and much-deserved attention has been given to the impacts of carbon emissions and climate change on oceans and marine resources, only limited attention has been paid to carbon’s neighbor among the elements – nitrogen.
Mankind has disturbed the global cycle of nitrogen even more than that of carbon. Since the early 1900s, humans have been converting atmospheric nitrogen gas into ‘reactive’ forms like ammonia and nitrate to produce fertilizers for agriculture. This energy intensive process now generates 150 percent more reactive nitrogen than natural processes on land.
The nearly unlimited availability of relatively cheap artificial fertilizer has driven a ‘green revolution’, tremendous increases in agricultural productivity and food production for growing populations around the world.
The other side of this revolution has been a roughly three-fold increase in the amount of nitrogen – from both agricultural runoff and wastewater - reaching our coasts and oceans from the continents. The vast use of nitrogen-based fertilizers has also substantially increased releases of gaseous nitrous oxide – a potent greenhouse gas - from fertilized land.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are essential nutrients for growth of the ocean’s plankton, but excess amounts can create dead zones in which large numbers of decomposing plankton consume almost all available oxygen. There has been an alarming increase in hypoxic zones across the world’s bodies of water, such as in the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Estimates of the economic damage from excess nitrogen in the European Union alone amount to the equivalent of GBP 280 billion per year.
In a parallel to the nitrogen problem, global reserves of fertilizer’s other main ingredient, phosphorus, could peak sometime this century; shortages of phosphorus – which has no substitute – could threaten global food security.
A seemingly unrelated issue is the challenging Millennium Development Goal of halving by 2015 the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation. At present, nearly 2.6 billion people still lack a safe, hygienic sanitation facility that keeps human waste from being released into the local environment. The total financial value of nitrogen and phosphorus contained in the waste of the unserved 2.6 billion amounts to about GBP 3 billion per year.
In parallel, fertilizer manufacturers, particularly in Europe, face increasing challenges in operating profitably due to the combined high costs of imported natural gas and electricity under the EU’s greenhouse gas emission trading system.
Is there perhaps an unrecognized business – and poverty reduction - opportunity at hand, whereby fertilizer manufacturers turn to the poor as an important source of nitrogen and phosphorus, by delivering and managing sustainable sanitation services to the world’s poorest, and harvesting and selling the fertilizer end products?
A wide variety of ‘eco-sanitation’ separating toilets are already available, many at low cost. Such innovative companies would also be able to sell carbon emissions reduction credits due to the sizeable reductions in their emissions of greenhouse gases, and clearly the initiative would create large numbers of jobs in the world’s poorest countries. Notably, the city of Paris recovered 50 percent or more of its human waste in the mid-1800’s and used it as fertilizer for local farms; it was the advent of modern water and sewage systems that quickly changed this practice.
Whether such a program might actually be economically viable remains to be seen - it might require initial subsidies to overcome barriers to scaling up. What’s important to recognize is the urgent need fora paradigm shift from linear to cyclic approaches to managing our vital nutrient resources, and the myriad long-term benefits of such a transition, not only to our precious oceans but also to global food security, poverty reduction and mitigating climate change.
Andrew Hudson is Cluster Leader of the United Nations’ Development Programme’s Water & Ocean Governance Programme and is currently serving as the Coordinator of UN-Oceans.