Science Questions

Is fertiliser more damaging than buring fossil fuels?

Sun, 21st Mar 2010

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David and Judith Coley asked:

Dear Chris


Also on a recent farming programme they explained that satelite pictures of farmland combined with computer programming of the distribition of fertilsers from a tractor could optimise yields using no more than the necessary amount of fertiliser. Suprisingly they stated that the fertiliser, I think made from petrochemicals, was about six hundred times more damaging than, I think the burning of fossil fuels.  

Is this true and why is this so please?


We posed this question to Brian Thomas from the University of Warwick and Claire Domoney form the John Innes Centre...

Brian -   Well I think it’s not really a question of one or the other because I think as we’ve heard earlier, the manufacture of fertilisers involves a major amount of energy and contributes significantly to greenhouse gases, and therefore, you have to burn fossil fuels to obtain the fertiliser in the first place.  I think in terms of fertiliser, it is possible to mitigate some of these problems.  For example, as we’ve heard with plants that fix nitrogen, if we could extend that capability to others, that would help if we had a more efficient process for fixing nitrogen, more efficient than the Haber process, or we can get plants that use nitrogen more efficiently and there’s a lot of work going on at the moment looking at the genetics of that particular aspect of crop production.

Claire -   Yes and I think there is some debate as to how much of applied nitrogen fertiliser ends up as nitrous oxide. The IPCC estimates at about 1% ends up as nitrous oxide, but there are some papers in the literature which suggests that that’s a three or four-fold underestimate, and it could in fact be much higher than that.  So, I think there’s a lot of discussion as to how much, but nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas, much more potent than carbon dioxide by several hundred times.


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No, fertilizer run-off is not 600 times more powerful then burning fossil fuels. In fact, burning fossil fuels is not 600 times more powerful then running hamsters in an excercise wheel. The entire CO2 panic is an entire fraud.

For instance: "To assess whether the airborne fraction is indeed increasing, Wolfgang Knorr of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol reanalyzed available atmospheric carbon dioxide and emissions data since 1850 and considers the uncertainties in the data.

"In contradiction to some recent studies, he finds that the airborne fraction of carbon dioxide has not increased either during the past 150 years or during the most recent five decades."

What is important about this report is not its findings. What is important is we have more and more individuals willing to risk career life and limb to report heretical findings. The next generation of 'climatologists' will be gaining fame and fortune through REFUTING the religious orthodoxies of the last few decades. Get used to it... litespeed, Thu, 31st Dec 2009

It's findings are exactly what is important here. And for the record it would be good if could reference your sources in future so I don't have to hunt the internet to respond.

"The annual increase in atmospheric CO2 (as determined from ice cores, thin dotted lines, and direct measurements, thin black line) has remained constantly proportional to the annual amount of CO2 released by human activities (thick black line). The proportion is about 46%"

taken from

So, he's saying that it possible that only 46% of CO2 is staying in the atmosphere over time - which might mean we've got longer to get our act together (& Chrits knows we need it!) peppercorn, Sat, 2nd Jan 2010


Good response, and you are correct, I should have included the citation. Usually I do but I have become bored and lethargic on the matter. Perhaps its just me, but the CO2 pumping will continue for generations whatever the outcome. Does anyone actually be believe fossil fuel plants of India and China are going to be equipped with Carbon sequestration technology any time soon.

And so I have a new Hobby Horse. I call it PLAN B.  Prepare for CO2 consequences should they turn out to be bad. Planet cooling. Its the only response that can both be timely and economically feasible. Arguing about PLAN A is a fruitless academic exercise. For instance, I believe O'Bama swore on his ACORN membership to reduce per capita US CO2 emissions to levels of 1885.

Who can take this Plan A stuff seriously any more? What with the climate gate fix, algore and his hapless war on the Polar Bears, the hockey stick comic, and now UK forcasters: "The cold weather comes despite the Met Office’s long range forecast, published, in October, of a mild winter. That followed it’s earlier inaccurate prediction of a “barbecue summer”, which then saw heavy rainfall and the wettest July for almost 100 years.

Perhaps Mother Nature has an ironic sense of humor. litespeed, Sun, 3rd Jan 2010

Ha, ha!! This sounds a bit like your "I will wait in quiet anticipation..." statement awhile back!
For someone who is "bored & lethargic" you can half post!!

Your new 'Plan B' scoop can only mean that you are finally accepting GW - Oh, the irony! peppercorn, Sun, 3rd Jan 2010

Overall, the Earth is pretty much a closed system.  Only a tiny amount of matter leaves the Earth (mostly due to the solar wind) and the quantity of matter added due to meteor strikes is negligible.

What this means is that the total amounts of lots of different stuff has remained the same, ever since Theia whacked into the proto-Earth.

Those 'primordial' atoms have combined and recombined many times since then, and have ended up in all sorts of different places; much of the carbon, for example, is currently tied up in semi-volatile  compounds held in stability underneath the oceans where the pressure of the overlying water keeps the compounds in stable long-lived forms.

Over time though, all of the atoms get re-used/re-cycled/re-combined to end up as something else, but the bottom line is that the absolute numbers don't change much.

When we discuss things like global climate change (the term 'global warming' is misleading) we need to remember that we're discussing a transient phenomenon; it's only significant in terms of human lifetimes/generations, which is just a trifling instant in the life of the Earth to date.

So in respect of the original question, the issue is but a single flap of a butterfly's wings. LeeE, Sun, 3rd Jan 2010

Lee - I really do agree with your point. I think it's great shame the the expression "global warming" was ever coined.

Like many people, I'm probably a bit confused about "global warming" per se. However, I'm not confused about whether or not humans are gambling with their future by rapidly redistributing compounds of carbon on our planet. Geezer, Mon, 4th Jan 2010

If you take the argument about climate change to it's core, all you need is a bit of an understanding about CO2 bonding & electromagnetic interaction with bonds, why that results in a greenhouse effect.. as well as that, an appreciation the equation:

CH4 + O2 --> CO2 + H2O

& It's full implications for burning other alkanes which have been stored for God knows how long. For me, learning that burning alkanes results in more CO2 production which stays in the atmosphere which results in warming is enough - I don't feel a particular need to look at the evidence, since these things are so easily testable - I could probably test that information myself, but I trust scientists to have got it right. So I do.

Anyway, we should really be focusing on the OPs question. glovesforfoxes, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

Lee - You wrote: "Overall, the Earth is pretty much a closed system." This is patently absurd. The earth is primarily the creature of the sun. Even GW guys recognize this and simply state human CO2 will have dire consequences regarding solar radiation.

I agree, however, that geologic phenomena such as volcanic activity, the Pacific Heat Vent, and oceanic circulation are very important. I simply point out these things are, to date, inadequately understood to such an extent the variables are nearly unknown over time.

For instance, climatologists are at this very moment knashing teeth and rending cloths because their juvenile models can not account for current cooling. Even weather forcasters are suicidal in the UK. In October they projected a mild Winter. Before that they projected a barbeque Summer. Everyone would have been better off if they had all gone to a six months summit in Copenhagen and neglected any forecast at all. litespeed, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

Litespeed, I thought Lee's comments regarding the Earth as a closed system were well reasoned. "Absurd" is a rather extreme pejorative. Do you wish to retract it? If you reread what Lee said, I think you'll find he was talking about the matter that constitutes the Earth, rather than the energy that the earth might receive or radiate.
Geezer, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

pepper - You wrote: "Your new 'Plan B' scoop can only mean that you are finally accepting GW.

I have consistently pointed out the climate has warmed since the Little Ice Age and have consistently used it to counter the stupid hokey stick climate graphs. Further, I simply point out 1) I am not convinced this warming is primarily due to increased human CO2; or 2)it is a bad thing anyway.

Plan B is simply the one and only logical conclusion for CO2 alarmists. CO2 emissions will continue unabated for generations to come. Accordingly, Plan B is the only moral or intellectual approach if you believe the worst.  However, CO2 alarmists seem willfully resistant to Plan B.  This very fact is evidence they have not done their homework in the first place, IMHO.

Whine, wring your hands, condemn Western Civilization. Anything but actually plan to ameliorate the situation while time is still plentiful to do such. It tells me the CO2 alarmists do not have the courage of their convictions. Oh for sure human CO2 is a mortal sin. However, actually intervene with plans for cooling technology? Heaven forbid!

If I were a CO2 alarmist I would be raising holly hell to get the UN and the climatologist community to begin work on amelioration plans. Yeah. Right. Just display a forlorn Polar Bear on yet one more styrofoam ice berg, or a Maldavian SCUBA diver in a fish tank. Add a short appacolyptic movie with young girl hanging from the last dead tree branch over a violent and consuming sea.

Yeah. We've done our part......

litespeed, Tue, 5th Jan 2010


I missunderstood Lee's point that "the earth is a closed system" as far as mass is concerned. I jumped to the conclusion we were talking strictly about weather. My error.  However, estimates for the total mass of material that falls on Earth each year range from 37,000-78,000 tons. I suppose the atmosphere might evaporate into space to counter this.  Even if it did not, such amounts of mass accumulation are small.

Your point is well taken, and Lee please accept my regrets. I am tempermentally inclined to be cantankerous, and sometimes it gets away from me. Nothing personal, and I certainly am not adverse to correction.

litespeed, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

Addendum - Cosmic Ray Variations

Our discussions of extraterestrial mass accumulation got me back on track to research cosmic ray variations. It has been on my "To Do List" for a long time. Big surprise:

"Hundreds of years ago, cosmic ray fluxes were at least 200% higher than they are now. Researchers know this because when cosmic rays hit the atmosphere, they produce the isotope beryllium-10, which is preserved in polar ice. By examining ice cores, it is possible to estimate cosmic ray fluxes more than a thousand years into the past. Even with the recent surge , cosmic rays today are much weaker than they have been at times in the past millennium."

I don't know if this is an Ah Haw moment or not. However, I have been thinking about this for a long time and now we see Cosmic Ray variability is BIG. Much bigger then I expected. The next question to research is whether cosmic Ray variability is possitively or negatively correlated with climate variability.

Anecdotally, I have seen a lot of discussion on cloud formation, lightning strikes and other phenomena. Co-incidentally, I believe the lethargic Sunspot Cycle 24 directly increases cosmic ray activity. So. How in the hell are Cosmic Rays at such an historic low level. Where the hell are the climatologists when you really need them.

This might be something big....
litespeed, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

Huh? It seemed to me you've been trying to tell us global warming stopped a decade ago.

Madidus_Scientia, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

Thanks litespeed!

The topic is clearly "non-trivial", so I expect there will be some heated debate. I'm only trying to ensure the debate is not based on a misunderstanding.

Thanks again,

Geezer. Geezer, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

litespeed: NP, we all have our moments, good and bad.  Personally, I'm tempermentally inclined to be silly. LeeE, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

madi - You quoted me: "It seemed to me you've been trying to tell us global warming stopped a decade ago."  The actual term used by the guys who adjusted the IPPC numbers according to el nino etc for 1998 to 2008 is standstill.

I admit to a predilection for periodic hyperbally. So I will concede the temperature might not be dropping. However, this Winter's climate is setting cold records accross the globe

-- Winter Could Be Worst in 25 Years for USA...
   Elderly burn books for warmth?
-- Vermont sets 'all-time record for one snowstorm'...
-- Iowa temps 'a solid 30 degrees below normal'...
-- Seoul buried in heaviest snowfall in 70 years...
-- Historic ice build-up shuts down NJ nuclear power plant...
-- Midwest Sees Near-Record Lows, Snow By The Foot...
-- Major roads in Beijing and Tianjin, as well as nearby provinces Hebei, Shanxi and
   Inner Mongolia, were forced to close due to the heavy snow.
-- Cold weather kills scores in India...

And of course, in October UK forcasters predicted a mild Winter. And before that they predicted a scorching Summer. Oh well. Never mind. Maybe they got too many interns from East Anglia. Who knows.....However, aren't you one of those who believes Global Warming would be a bad thing?

litespeed, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

Lee & Geezer

I believe internet forums should resemble a large round table of debate where one participant is not only permitted, but is required by custom to irreverently point out the flaws in the presentation of other members.  This is part of the fun, and also promotes more due diligence on the part of every one. 

Further, cheap shots are often a judgement calls, and the rules permit tit for tat.

litespeed, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

Gas supplies running out in the UK? Well, that could mean that they are running out of gas in the UK, not that it is unusually cold there. Precipitation (rain, ice rain, or snow) increase could be a sign of increased evaporation due to warming trends. The "worst winter in 25 years for USA" says nothing about the temperatures although it does look like we are getting more than our share of snow in many places. The winter storm here in VT was interesting and lengthy, but not as much snow as I have seen in my particular area before and it certainly was not particularly cold. This is some (now outdated) data I found posted by someone but I cannot show where he/she had it from:

Ten biggest snow storms of VT (some are multi-day events), all need to slide down one notch due to the storm last weekend:
1. 29.8" 25-28 DEC 1969
2. 25.7" 14-15 FEB 2007 (biggest one day event ever)
3. 24.7" 13-14 JAN 1934
4. 22.9" 5-6 MAR 2001
5. 22.4" 13-14 MAR 1993
6. 20.0" 25 NOV 1900
7. 19.7" 25-28 JAN 1986
8. 19.1" 16-17 MAR 1937
9. 18.8" 14-15 DEC 2003
10. 18.3" 6-7 DEC 2003

If increased precipitation is a result of warming, it seems to be getting warmer during the winters in my area. 5 of the biggest 11 in the last ten years. 7 of biggest 11 in the last 30 years. And all of this means little for annual precipitation. Or annual temperatures. Just don't equal more winter weather with colder winters or climate.

Karsten, Wed, 6th Jan 2010

SO what is the relationship of the last several posts on global warming to the original question?

To me it appears that throughout the forum several members have been riding just one horse, relating every question on just about any environmentally related subject to global warming. PLEASE, try to keep remarks on global warming confined ONLY to subjects dedicated solely to global warming. The effect of fertilizers and insecticides on fish, birds (e.g., DTD) and other wildlife - only a single ramification of insecticides - has been shoved under the bed while the persons in this discussion drag the discussion into promoting their own agendas.

Please refrain from this in the future. If this continues, there will be consequences.

Moderator JimBob, Wed, 6th Jan 2010


Of course you are entitled to your opinions, but this is not "Hyde Park Corner" and this forum does have a policy. Here is a link to it:

While your posts are greatly appreciated, we would request that you kindly conform with the forum's policy.


Geezer Geezer, Wed, 6th Jan 2010


Point well taken. This thread is about fertilizer, not Bull Manure. litespeed, Sat, 9th Jan 2010

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