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Fertilizer plants emit 100 times more methane than reported (sciencedaily.com)
266 points by rguiscard on June 11, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 62 comments

Actual paper here: https://www.elementascience.org/article/10.1525/elementa.358...

My conclusions:

* A carbon tax would be nice to incentivize accountability around net- greenhouse gas contributions.

* This paper does quite a bit of probabilistic inference here. They conclude, for example, that the ~two orders of magnitude difference in emissions implies the model is working. ( https://www.elementascience.org/article/10.1525/elementa.358... ) This isn't super surprising since they're trying to measure methane emissions ~a km away from the source, but should measure our expectations.

Also, the whole dataset is available here (https://oneshare.cdlib.org/stash/dataset/doi:10.15146/R3WT2N) if anyone is interested. Props to the authors for including it.

(Disclosure: My company buys quite a bit of inorganic fertilizer every year. None of it is US sourced though as we're operating in subsaharan Africa.)

If we can't have a carbon tax because of the politics, we should at least try for a ban on fracking. Every molecule of gas extracted has to go somewhere, either into the atmosphere directly or as CO2.

We shouldn't do anything in any direction without detailed comparisons.

https://www.drawdown.org/ has a big list of things that can be done, with the benefits of each in terms of cost and carbon reduction. It would make most sense to work through the list. If you guessed what number 1 is, you're a smarter human than I am!


> We shouldn't do anything in any direction without detailed comparisons.

I feel differently. We should do everything. All at the same time. We don't have the luxury of time to pick and choose anymore.

Good that you brought up the drawdown project. Even the number 1 on their list is "only" like about 5% of total ghg.

No single solution will be enough. So we need to try to do as much in as many sectors as possible. Including fracking.

>I feel differently. We should do everything. All at the same time. We don't have the luxury of time to pick and choose anymore.

As much as it would incredibly suck (for convenience and variety in life) I think we, as a species, need to completely abandon fossil fuels in the next 10 years. Sadly it'll never happen, we will be burning fossil fuels well past seeing massive deaths from starvation/drought/unpredictable weather/food wars.

Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.

> As much as it would incredibly suck (for convenience and variety in life)

The good news is that it wouldn't even suck. I don't think so. We are being brainwashed (sorry, being informed about products and services via advertisement) that car ownership is the best thing since the pill, and that flying to a tech conference is a great experience. There are better (and much less polluting) ways to have fun. I believe without the fossil industry we will flourish and our quality of life will skyrocket.

>The good news is that it wouldn't even suck.

It would for me. I work in international freight, I'd be unemployed. It looks like my employer may have used 1.2 billion gallons of jet fuel alone last year, if these figures are accurate https://www.statista.com/statistics/878539/fedex-express-tot... -- at 9.57kg of carbon per gallon that is 11,640,000 metric tons of carbon (again if the numbers are accurate) just from our planes last year :(

We'd also be forced back to a (largely) pre 1950s-1960sish era level of tech as devices started to die off simply because we currently don't have the means of mining and moving goods globally on renewable energy at anywhere near current levels. I'm mostly fine with this though, if I woke up tomorrow and magic had made the computers/the internet/smartphones/e-readers disappear I'd have a really rough few days then I'd be like "oh well, let's go outside or down to the library, let me show these kids how a card catalog works".

I am not sure that CO2 emissions and climate change will have any real impact on the forwarding and freight industries. Global supply chains are so specialized by now that going back to 100% local production simply isn't feasible anymore, if it ever was. I guess supply chains, now being optimized for cost, will optimize for emissions instead.

Which is also the lever to go to net zero, make emissions of CO2 and such expensive enough and the world will change.

That being said, done well a global supply chain can very well be more efficient from a emissions perspective than a non-global one. The optimization knowledge needed to achieve that is already there. So, all in all I guess transportation of goods will even be more important going forward.

> I work in international freight, I'd be unemployed.

What is your profession? If it has anything to do with software you will EASILY find a job in ANY industry.

> means of mining and moving goods globally

Electronics are perfectly recyclable.

> let's go outside or down to the library


Interestingly, the advertising industry may be fundamentally responsible for more CO2 emissions than the fossil fuel industry.

By cultivating dissatisfaction and greed in the populace, it encourages net overconsumption and unnecessary waste.

When power becomes cleaner there will be even less reason to support the position that urban living is better for the planet. EVs and clean energy will do more to open more space for people to live outside of cities because the environmental impact will so much less.

clean energy will free more people to choose to live how they want to live rather than live how others tell them too.

> car ownership While ownership isn't that important per se, access to a car is vital for many people living where there are no public transport options available. Unless you intend to start relocating people forcibly, we need to maintain some kind of transport ability on the country side.

Doesn't have to be run on fossil fuels, though.

> Unless you intend to start relocating people forcibly

You don't need to force anyone. It's happening by itself https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization

Of course, but that will be a considerably longer process than desired if we're going to rely on that for reducing emissions. After all, there are always going to be some people living outside cities, and in most cases, public transport would be a waste out here because of the long distances involved and the low population density.

Bring farming machinery into the equation and replacing fossil fuels suddenly becomes far more important than reducing car ownership.

I think the politics will allow it - we should be fighting for a Carbon Fee & Dividend system https://citizensclimatelobby.org/basics-carbon-fee-dividend/

Indeed! Thanks to tireless lobbying, there is now a bipartisan-sponsored bill before the House: https://teddeutch.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?Documen...

This is the one mechanism that actually has the potential to turn the entire economy around without directly making politicians look bad, so it has a nonzero chance of passing.

The best thing you can do for the climate today is to call your representatives about this bill, or better, send handwritten letters or letters to the editor.

Try www.writegreen.org to write a personal letter to Congress in 4 minutes instead of two hours. Personal letters are 20x more effective than form letters.

Fracking seems to be largely the cause of dropping natural gas prices which led to the phasing out of coal.

Without fracking were we closing this many coal plants?

Would other nations close this many coal plants?

Not sure; in the UK there is no fracking beyond a bit of exploration yet, but the "dash for gas" converted a lot of power stations and the remaining coal-fired ones were closed by the Large Combustion Plant Directive. We're now down to near-zero coal consumption. Even Drax has been retrofitted to burn wood (although this is of questionable sustainability since it has to be imported - last time I ran the maths I concluded it would burn every tree in the UK in a year)

Which actually is a big step already. Coal is dirty energy source in more than one way. And burning wood, even imported, is still preferable if you ask from a CO2 perspective. If we get to the point where gas in only needed to cover periods where renewables cannot we almost won. Almost...

Not sure when zero coal is going to happen in Germany...

Indeed, and this article highlights a very thorny political issue - if a carbon tax was in place, would this finding mean it would have 100x the impact on food prices that was modeled?

If a carbon tax is so high that fertiliser becomes uneconomic to use (which is sorta the goal of a carbon tax at some point, to squeeze people who emit so they behave differently) that is maybe going to start impacting food prices. Somebody is going to feel that. As a political topic fertiliser needs careful handling.

...unless made into plastic.

> would be nice to incentivize accountability

If only we could "incentivize accountability" the way we do it for poor people...

Do you want to be a bit more explicit, because I cant really work out what you're referring to.

Crack down harshly without consideration of any mitigating circumstances the same normal "tough on crime" policies never applied to those with resources to defend themselves.

Since there is the utterly fucked norm of "should have done X" victim blaming without regards to viability to the poor and sympathy for rich criminals or harsh condemnation followed by a lenient sentence less than far more petty crimes like having three marajuana plants in pots.

How would a carbon tax be implemented in the short time we still have to tackle the climate crisis? Society hasn't been able to fix all the normal tax loopholes and avoidance, why would a carbon tax suddenly be efficient?

Punctuated equilibrium is an optimistic worldview of policy change. AKA "first a little, then a lot". Meaning big sweeping changes after long periods of apparent inaction.

I've never quite understood how it works with evolution, a la Stephen Jay Gould.

But with politics, it's basically memetics and attention economy. First, correctly identify the problem. Second, divine some useful plan of action. Third, crisis triggers massive response. All done in the opposition to the ever present status quo. And there's A LOT of incrementalism (experimentation).

Oregon just adopted (joined) California's carbon strategy. It's basically a complete retool of the Oregon economy. If that goes well, I expect all the other western states will rapidly join in.

FWIW, I try to study policy work, after my own efforts led to very modest results. People I know have been far more successful (marriage equality, marijuana, human trafficking, family leave, and much else).

> Oregon just adopted (joined) California's carbon strategy.

link(s) ?

Title: "Oregon is poised to set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a huge deal. A “cap and invest” bill would link it to California’s carbon trading market."


FWIW: Vox's David Roberts is now my primary climate & carbon pundit. He's just crushing it. And I've become a big fan of "explainer journalism".

imagine that - what is in the headlines today.. "Oregon Governor sends State Police after Lawmakers who flee to avoid Carbon Vote"

And even if WE did implement it quickly and efficiency, and it works as intended, how do you convinced the other countries responsible for the other 85% of global carbon emissions to care?

1) Many of them already claim to care but won't benefit much from any policies they might implement if the US and China and India aren't going to act too.

2) The current carbon pricing bill in the House of Representatives (HR 763 [1][2]) includes border adjustments based on the carbon footprint of imported goods, which will incentivize our trading partners to implement similar policies or reduce their carbon footprints by other means.

[1] https://citizensclimatelobby.org/energy-innovation-and-carbo...

[2] https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/763

How do you convince the countries responsible for the other 85% if you haven't taken steps yourself? Someone has to lead.

Some other countries have already implemented carbon tax. Some as early as 1991 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_tax#Sweden

And what about China? Well, if US introduces carbon tax, demanding the same from China would a fair move in the current trade negotiations.

How about a methane-leakage tax, separately from the carbon tax? If leaked methane is ~40x worse than CO2, shouldn't it be taxed at ~40x the rate?

Generally speaking, a "Carbon tax" would most likely be on "Net green house gas contributions normalized to CO2 tons." Basically, I believe your objection has been thought of and is incorporated in most proposals.

Glad to hear this is the case, thanks

I can only imagine how badly this increases the environmental impact of meat industry if this fertiliser is used to fertilise soy fed to beef cattle which is hugely inefficient in providing protein to humans

I suspect it could ironically help still - at least if compared to non-fertilized resource useage.

Worth noting that when you see EPA charts that show agriculture’s impact on greenhouse gases, the manufacturing of fertilizer is not included. The application of fertilizer and any evaporation into the atmosphere is what’s counted as “agriculture”. I get why the EPA separates things into categories, but one effect of that is that agriculture’s true impact on climate change is greatly misunderstood. In fact, so much of our society is shaped by how we farm, and how food gets delivered to your plate — it’s why I believe changing our agriculture is fundamental to solving climate change (practically speaking through a price on carbon).

Fewer people on earth also fixes the problem. No, I am not advocating this. However, we should be prepared for the countries with big armies and few morals who stumble upon this particular solution once the situation becomes more dire.

Thing is, we kicked off climate change a long time ago. Even if we cut our population in half, we’d still cook the planet at our 1970s levels of emissions.

We already know how to grow healthier denser more nutritional food - permaculture techniques allow trading additional labor in lieu of additional capital investment. The fundamental issue is economic: consumers are too satisfied with mediocre produce to demand higher quality. Insufficient demand to justify increased labor investment.

Fertilizer is a MUCH better market for clean hydrogen production than cars.

You mean we should use hydrogen to produce fertilizer? Or producing hydrogen as a by product of fertilizer?

I'm not too versed in that domain but I'm curious!

The first step making fertilizer is making ammonia. Amonia is made with the Haber-Bosch[1] process by combining nitrogen with hydrogen. The hydrogen from that is made by combining steam and natural gas to make hydrogen and carbon monoxide[2]. The carbon from the natural gas ends up as CO2 in the atmosphere. If there were more green way to produce hydrogen for a reasonable price that would knock out a significant source of global CO2 emissions.

If solar power gets cheap enough maybe it'll make sense to use the excess power at noon for electrolysis, though I don't have a good sense of the capital costs for that.



Indeed. Unlike cars which really want mechanical energy or electricity (with hydrogen just being one way to provide that electricity... at lower efficiency than battery-electric), fertilizer production already needs hydrogen, with methane being an indirect way to provide that hydrogen.

Instead of trying to compete one-to-one against natural gas for thermal applications or battery-electric for electric ones, you can compete on turf that requires hydrogen fundamentally, saving the investment in a steam reformer. So if you have hydrogen already, instead of needing an extra capital investment (like a fuel cell in a fuel cell car), you actually can reduce capital investment (the steam reformer).

Also, it's large and centralized (large, centralized hydrogen plants have a cheaper relative capital cost and tend to be more efficient) and there are even ammonia pipelines carrying the ammonia to the Midwest from Texas (with world-class wind AND solar potential and plenty of land), so you don't have to deal with hydrogen storage and distribution issues.

It's a way better spot for wind and solar produced hydrogen to compete than in mobile fuel cell applications where you have to solve a bunch of other problems (fuel cells, distribution, hydrogen storage cost and safety to the uninvolved public, small electrolysis facilities with requisite lower efficiency and higher specific capital cost) while simultaneously having to compete with the low price of electricity and natural gas.

That makes lots of sense! Thanks you

I know that at least on Orkney Island they have surplus energy that they use to produce hydrogen


Though I'm sure we're talking about completely different orders of magnitude

Wow, it took me a while to realize that this article is about fertilizer factories and not about fertilizer (actual) plants.

The brain is funny sometimes and so is this title.

I had the same confusion. Apparently the english name for natural fertilizer plants is 'green manure'.


This is the kind of thing i expect from China, not the USA. I guess in some ways our cultures are not so different after all

i am surprised that you are surprised :)

Its interesting they used the google street view cars to carry the methane sensors. Anyone know what other sensors they might be carrying on street view vehicles?

Similarly to how our own phones transmit data back to Waze for traffic info, are there any other things that could be useful for us to attach to our vehicles to record?

There's probably all sorts of interesting things that could be done to weather and air quality monitoring if we had the low level local data points from every car on the road. It'd be way easier to catch smaller or intermittent polluters for example.

They don’t share the raw data, but there are a number of projects/ third-parties they partner with that share sanitized/ cleaned up data: https://www.google.com/earth/outreach/special-projects/air-q...

This methane discovery was a result of this project

Yeah, I was imagining that on an even wider array of cars though, imagine the resolution and constant pollution monitoring we could get if the same sensors were on 1-10% of cars?

So, how does this relate to our predictions about global warming? Anyone here who has insights on that?

I think this is both good news and bad news.

Most of the global warming work is based off the amount of methane estimated to be in the atmosphere, which can be determined with sampling and spectroscopy. This particular piece of research tells us where some of that is coming from, and fortunately it's from a few concentrated sites that are under human control. We could lean on them to fix it. Chemical processing sites already try to control methane leakage because it's explosive in air.

The bad news is that we probably won't. We have enough trouble with flaring: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-4... (my pet complaint, not only because it's a nuisance but because they've wasted in a year as much gas as I personally will use in 50,000 years, which makes reducing my personal consumption seem a bit pointless)

( https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=((38747+tonnes+*+50MJ%...) )

Thank you for taking the time to write up some conclusions!

>... makes reducing my personal consumption seem a bit pointless

Although I try to not to be wasteful also I get this feeling a lot that in climate change matters the actions that individuals can set are far outweighed by consistently applied systemic changes. Makes it kind of frustrating to try to save the earth :)

Apart from absolute emission reductions, we shouldn't underestimate the cultural and political impacts of individual actions. Individual actions are also a form of political pressure. Don't get frustrated.

Right! And let's all consider this karma. The more you waste the more the world heats up. The more effecient you become the more ideas you have on how to make market decisions towards efficiency.

All the incentives are in all the wrong places. No surprise, self-regulation isn't working. (But still very disappointing.)

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