Why Sable CDM fertilizer project in Zimbabwe is no answer to pollution

By Farai Maguwu

Posted on August 24, 2012 16:48

Sable Holdings, a subsidiary of Chemplex Corporation Limited has become the first company in Zimbabwe to implement a Clean Development Mechanism project that aims at reducing the emission of nitrous oxide from its fertilizer manufacturing plant in Kwekwe. But is the idea technologically sound?

Sable Chemicals is Zimbabwe’s sole manufacturer of ammonium nitrite fertilizer. The CDM project will see the installation of a nitrous oxide abatement facility that facilitates the catalytic decomposition of nitrous oxide into nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrous oxide is ranked fourth among the greenhouse gases, coming after water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane. Though not toxic, nitrous oxide is a major contributor to global warming and it can stay in the atmosphere for up to 120 years.

Sable chemicals say they have been emitting nitrous oxide into the atmosphere all along, hence the need to abate it into harmless gases. According to the proposal Sable will also install a DeNOx facility that will significantly reduce the emission of NOx emissions. NOx emissions are nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2) that contribute to acid rain. The project is funded by the Standard Bank of South Africa. Chemplex Corporation chief executive officer Mr Misheck Kachere claims the successful implementation of the project will ensure that environmental pollution as a result of their fertilizer manufacturing activities would be reduced to zero! We argue here that the mechanism proposed by Sable Chemicals is neither ‘clean’ nor progressive.

On surface, the idea is technologically sound, environmentally friendly and is in line with the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the big question is whether the Nitrous Oxide Abatement facility is attending to the real problem or they are treating opportunistic infections while skating around the actual disease. As always, a wrong diagnosis will lead to a wrong prognosis and gives a wrong therapy.

Electricity and coal

The production process of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is only but one of the many ways through which fertilizer contributes to air and water pollution. This facility will reduce emission of nitrous oxide at the production site only but has no control on the effects of fertilizer itself, which include production and emission of more nitrous oxides when it is applied to the soil.

Further, we argue that plans to ‘switch off the electrolysis plant completely’ in preference to coal gasification will significantly contribute to global warming through the emission of carbon dioxide.

However, in their carefully worded project proposal, Sable chemicals have only talked about the sunny side of the deal: reducing emissions and contributing to agriculture through fertilizer manufacturing. They also add that ‘the project activity will not affect employment at Sable Chemical Industries nitric acid plant, except in a positive way, by adding the operation, maintenance and monitoring of the catalyst.’ The above description leaves out the dark side of the Sable project: massive carbon emission due to the switch to coal gasification instead of hydro-power, surface and ground water pollution as well as atmospheric pollution through the application of ammonium fertilizer.

When operating at full capacity Sable Chemicals require 115 megawatts, equivalent to the size of a power station, to fire its plant. The company pays an electricity bill of over USD20 million per month, and is arguably the largest single consumer of electricity in the country. As a cost cutting measure Sable has announced that it will diversify to coal gasification in phases. This move, whilst cutting the cost of production, comes at a great cost to the environment. The burning of coal results in massive amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps heat radiated from the earth and radiates it back to the earth’s surface, thereby contributing to global warming. According to the US Global Change Research Program carbon dioxide emission has been “the principal factor causing warming in the last fifty years”. Coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel when burned, making it the biggest anthropogenic cause of global warming. One ton of coal burned can produce on average two tons of carbon dioxide, making coal-fired electricity generation a major driver of pollution.

The ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ project would have broken new ground if, among other things, it sought to generate clean renewable energy for the Sable Chemicals plant and the surrounding communities. Countries that have used coal powered plants to generate electricity such as the USA are taking drastic measures to reduce the use of coal due to its greenhouse effect whilst Sable Chemical is moving in the opposite direction.

Water pollution

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But coal gasification is not the only problem with the industrial activities of Sable Chemicals. Scientists have established beyond any shadow of doubt that ammonium nitrate fertilizer is a major contributor to surface and groundwater pollution through the process of leaching which also leads to the multiplication of algae in water bodies such as dams and lakes. This is however in sharp contrast to the assertion by Sable Chemicals that ‘the proposed CDM project activity will not result in any water pollution.’

Studies conducted by Vincent Banek (2010), supported by observations by Nkwonta and Ochieng (2008),) and Collins (2010) showed that in some parts of Africa about 50% of water pollution is caused by fertilizer run off from agricultural fields. In its fourth national report to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Zimbabwe Ministry of Environment and Natural Resource Management also reported that run-off of nitrogenous fertilizer from sugar plantations in the lowveld was polluting rivers. Other researchers have also observed a high concentration of nitrates in the now heavily polluted Lake Chivero. Muthuthu (1995) carried out a study of ZIMPHOS, also a subsidiary of Chemplex Corporation Group of Companies and a sister company of SABLE and the results confirmed that ‘the fertilizer plant is a major source of emission into the upper Mukuvisi River.’ Mukuvisi River is one the three rivers that feed into Lake Chivero, the main supply of water to Harare.

Recently scientists at the University of California discovered that the chief cause of increased nitrous oxide in the atmosphere was nitrogen-based fertilizer, ‘which stimulates microbes in the soil to convert nitrogen to nitrous oxide at a faster rate than normal’. The researchers also looked back into history and noted that there was a sharp increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide in the 1960s when there was a boost in agriculture due to an increase in production of cheap synthetic fertilizer. They suggested that fertilizer application must be timed so as to avoid rain, ‘because wet and happy soil microbes can produce sudden bursts of nitrous oxide’. Tilling of fertilized land is also a major contributor to nitrous oxide emissions as it enables the greenhouse gas to exit the soil. The no-till farming technique which reduces nitrous oxide emission by between 40% and 70% has been strongly recommended. Some farmers are switching to organic fertilizer made up of animal manure or vegetable matter or a combination of the two. Dead leaves and crop residues can be buried in a compost heap to produce organic fertilizer for the next season.

Fertilizer tax

Realizing the role of fertilizer in emitting nitrous oxides, other researchers have recommended removal of subsidies on fertilizer and the imposition of fertilizer tax. These measures are being put in place out of realization that in the long run fertilizer use has a social cost to society similar to the one paused by carbon emission. Sable Chemicals is currently producing 240 000 tons of fertilizer annually. The socio-environmental costs of fertilizer use are a negative externality which will be shared by all humans irrespective of race, nationality, gender or religion.

Further, fertilizer can also leach from agricultural fields and flow through rivers into dams and oceans where it will cause algae blooms which will in turn cause harm to aquatic life.
Therefore there is need to educate farmers on alternatives to synthetic fertilizer. But more importantly a fertilizer tax will raise awareness faster as well as discouraging the use of synthetic fertilizer. Applying a fertilizer tax will ensure that the final price of fertilizer reflects the environmental / social costs of fertilizer consumption. Fertilizer tax will encourage innovation in the same manner that carbon tax has led to the invention of new engines, alternative means of travel such as walking to and from work and cycling and some less effective market based mechanisms. Revenue collected from fertilizer tax can be invested in research and alternative methods of boosting agriculture without compromising the environment.

In conclusion, one element that is clearly missing in the Sable project proposal is consultation with the residents of Kwekwe where the project will take place. The project ought to have the input of the local people who will have to deal with the effects of fertilizer manufacturing for several decades to come. As mentioned above, nitrous oxide can stay in the atmosphere for 120 years, meaning it can affect many generations to come. Whilst the decision to pollute is commercial and arbitrary, the effects of pollution are shared by all irrespective of race, ethnicity or geographical location. More importantly the poor are the hardest hit by the effects of pollution as they do not have the financial muscle to mitigate the effects.

Farai Maguwu is an award-winning human rights activist and researcher based in Zimbabwe.

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