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The Nitrogen Problem... Too Much of a Good Thing

When we think about global environmental issues, there’s a story that emerges. CO2 emissions, scaled up from the days of the industrial revolution, are strangling our atmosphere, melting our ice caps, and wrecking havoc upon our climate. The story of climate change is an ever-growing one, but it is not the sole crisis our planet is facing, nor is it alone in its potential to cause irreversible harm to us or our planetary systems. CO2’s been in the spotlight a lot lately, but there’s another chemical that we’ve been letting get out of control. Nitrogen, the often-inert gas that is 78% of the air we breath, that churns in the soil underneath our feet, that grows our food, and that poses a dire threat to our atmosphere, water systems, and food supply. However, it’s an essential aspect of each of these systems. And somehow, no one’s talking about it. The nitrogen problem is a microcosm of the sustainable development problem we face as a global community, and managing it effectively will demand a massive global effort to restructure our systems, personal habits, and policy mechanisms. Intimidated? Me too. But the nitrogen problem is an exciting challenge, and one that, if managed correctly, could improve practically every sector of sustainable development.

Much like any good origin story, the nitrogen problem emerged from matters of life and death, good and evil, and the trembling balance of human fate held in the hands of one weird, nerdy man. In the early 20th century, during the First World War, a German chemist named Fritz Haber stumbled upon what was probably the most consequential invention of human history — the ability to synthetically create ammonium. Pretty much, he combined H2 with N2 to turn the mostly-useless N2 gas that’s practically everywhere into a much rarer, much more useful one, a manmade fertilizer that would exponentially increase our ability to grow food, combatting global hunger and stripping away one of the largest limits on the human population. While he was at it, Haber also developed poisonous gas that was used by the Nazis in the war, an invention that ultimately took the lives of hundreds of thousands and prompted the subsequent suicide of his wife. Haber is responsible for both an incomprehensible amount of life and an incomprehensible amount of death. I don’t know whether this Nobel prize-winning chemist ended up in the good place or the bad place, but that’s a level of cosmic karma calculation way above my pay grade.

Carl Bosch took Haber’s synthetic nitrogen and ramped it up to an industrial scale, prompting what became known as the Green Revolution, and created what is now known as the Haber-Bosch process. All of a sudden, fertilizer was cheap, widespread, and farmers could use it in bulk. As it spread to the developing world, food production and population skyrocketed. Now, 50% of the world is fed by food grown with Haber-Bosch nitrogen. This process has doubled the amount of reactive nitrogen on the planet, and set us on track to be the globe-conquering mass of humanity that we are today. This graph is a great visual to show how much these two German dudes changed the fate of our planet.

But, aside from combatting global hunger and sending our population on an exponential growth spurt, this excessive supply of nitrogen has seeped into most of our planetary systems, causing a lot of harm. When excess nitrogen fertilizer is used (as it usually is), runoff flows into the water supply, creating massive blooms and deaths of algae, resulting in dead zones in aquatic ecosystems, which are about as good as they sound. Nitrous oxide emits from farming, combustion, and production activities, and is the greatest remaining threat to the ozone hole. It’s also a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates global warming and causes acid rain. In the soils, it leads to soil acidification and depletion. It pollutes water sources and damages air quality, causing respiratory illness. It can have global consequences that affect public health, water quality, plant and animal life, global poverty, and climate action. Nitrogen is pretty much the Swiss Army knife of pollutants, but its origins are widespread.

Nitrogen emissions come from a handful of sources, making it one of the hardest issues to regulate. A large portion of emissions come from the agricultural sector, most of which used to grow feed for livestock. The production of fertilizer, waste runoff, and waste treatment are other sources. It’s in practically every part of our system, and its effects span broadly over a slurry of environmental concerns. Nitrogen problems are related to 9 out of the 17 UN sustainable development goals.

I’m not going to go into the many nuanced paths of the nitrogen cascade, except to say that it is truly widespread. In its lifetime, one nitrogen atom can exacerbate a range of environmental and human health impacts, from the production of fertilizer to its usage, to the biosphere. Learn more about the nitrogen cascade here.

Nitrogen would be a far less serious problem if we used it efficiently. However, since there’s no real incentive for farmers to limit nitrogen use, they tend to over-apply it. Widespread behavior changes matter too — most of the nitrogen fertilizer we use isn’t to grow food for us, it’s to grow food for livestock, and that’s where most of the pollution comes from. There are so many environmental reasons to eat less meat, but changing human behavior on such a grand scale is challenging, and likely won’t solve the problem as quickly as we must.

So why aren’t we doing anything? What can we do? If nitrogen is an essential aspect of life, one that feeds a huge part of our population, one that is impossible to ban, how are we facing this major problem? Currently, through a haphazard network of UN conventions, different international coalitions, and vague goals set broadly in climate policy. Generally speaking, we aren’t doing much, or at least, aren’t doing it well. Mostly, what we need is an intergovernmental framework on how to manage nitrogen in a way that is cognizant of global hunger needs, the transboundary nature of the effects of nitrogen, and the many stakeholders involved. While there are legions of scientists and policymakers debating the most effective solutions, the greatest challenge we face is one of storytelling.

I’ve heard it said that what the planet needs most of all is a good PR team. It’s why it’s taken us so long to take climate change seriously, and it’s why I want to be an eco-communicator. Our brains are set up for a very specific type of narrative, one with a clear cause and effect, a villain to be vanquished, a clear task at hand. Climate change has few of these storytelling tools, nitrogen has close to none. It’s confusing and not particularly interesting, and has to do with things like manure. It’s a tricky story to tell. Few people care about it, it’s not in the headlines, and activists don’t have it at the top of their agendas, so they don’t demand it at climate conferences. Nitrogen is the boring homework assignment that’s super hard to do, so you put it off until the last minute, even though it’s worth 40% of your grade. What Nitrogen needs is attention, and focus.

So, what can we do? First, care about nitrogen! When we demand strong environmental legislation, that means more than just fossil fuel regulation. If policymakers consider nitrogen a priority, intergovernmental action can be taken to manage it more efficiently. Major polluters can be targeted and held accountable, programs can be established to help farmers use nitrogen effectively, and smarter technology can be implemented. And, if you want to take personal action, eating less meat is the most effective personal choice one can make in helping the environment — not only does it drastically lower your carbon footprint, but it reduces overall demand for synthetic fertilizer. Plus, it saves water. Eating organic foods also helps. However, individual action alone isn’t going to cut it. This is one of those beautiful, messy, confusing, all-for-one, one-for-all scenarios that will be one of our most exciting challenges of the coming decade. Honestly, I can’t wait to see how this one turns out.

I’ll leave you with a song that a guest lecturer on environmental policy showed my class — The Nitrogen Song. It was written by an Indian pop star to make the nitrogen issue more popular. I give it 6/10.

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