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Navigating nitrogen

“The less fossil-fuel-based fertilisers we use, the less dependent we are on fossil fuel imports, ”Ursula von der Leyen stated in a response to one of the group leaders’ interventions just after her “State of the European Union” speech in the European Parliament on 14 September 2022.1 The importance of fossil gas for nitrogen fertiliser production has become increasingly apparent in recent months as a result of soaring gas prices.

According to data from Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS), most European nitrogen fertiliser plants had limited their production in mid-September 2022, due to the high prices. Some were completely halted, while others such as YARA’s facilities were running at just 35% capacity.2 Fertilizers Europe estimates that around 70% of European ammonia production capacity has been curtailed.3

When the European Commission presented the ambition to halve nitrogen losses and reduce fertiliser use by 20 per cent by 2030, as part of its Farm to Fork Strategy, it could not have expected this development. By the end of the year the Commission intends to publish an Integrated Nutrient Management Action Plan aimed to help achieve the set targets. Over the years the European Union has tackled nitrogen pollution under several directives and regulations, for example the Nitrates Directive, the National Ceilings Directive, the Water Framework Directive and the Wastewater directive. Most of them reflect a simple “source – receptor/ effect” model of understanding.

Despite the number of laws that already exist, the European Environment Agency estimates that current nitrogen losses surpass the planetary boundaries by a factor of 3.3.4 Taking a holistic approach to nitrogen is a fair next step. One might think that the ongoing development could provide support for the Commission. The European Union can reduce the need for import-dependent inputs, while curbing emissions that harm biodiversity and human health.

In the short term, decisions go in the opposite direction. In her State of the Union speech, von der Leyen promised financial support to energy-intensive sectors. The fertiliser industry was subsequently mentioned explicitly as a potential recipient. The European Commission is also considering suspending tariffs on nitrogen fertilisers, so that imports can more easily replace domestic production. Quite naturally, farmers organisations are in favour of cheaper imports, while the European fertiliser industry is opposed.5

It is clear that neither financial subsidies to support the fertiliser industry nor abolished tariffs for imported fertilisers will contribute to the EU embarking on a path of increased resilience. The question is how the EU’s decision-makers manage to achieve a balance between dealing with acute crises and sticking to targets set a few years ahead.

Kajsa Pira







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