The tiny island state of Nauru, stranded halfway between Hawaii and Australia and spanning a mere 21km2, owes its existence to phosphorus. From an uninhabitable coral outcrop, Nauru formed as migrating birds with a propensity for depositing vast amounts of phosphorus rich guano used it as a resting place on their journey across this barren stretch of the Pacific. Over many millennia these birds helped to build up an island, which was miraculously chanced upon some 3,000 years ago by, one must assume, rather grateful seafaring Polynesians.
In 1900, with a growing global trade in agricultural products, Nauruans (or more accurately, prospector Albert Fuller Ellis) realised that they were sitting on a vast supply of phosphorus fertiliser, which their German colonial occupiers were happy to exploit. The story since then has been a largely unhappy one, a parable in microcosm of vanishing resources which should be heeded by the whole planet.
When Nauru achieved independence in 1968, two-thirds of the available phosphorus deposits had already been extracted and exported, leaving behind a wasteland spanning much of the island. However, for a short, heady period in the 1970s the islanders were among the richest people in the world. With much of the money from phosphate exports finally flowing into its own pockets, the country’s government went on a lavish spending spree. Cash was doled out to the populace, who began to enjoy an unprecedented standard of living. Life was good; or so it seemed at the time.
But why is phosphorus valuable enough to warrant transporting vast tracts of a remote island around the globe? Firstly, it is an essential biological nutrient and an element for which there is no substitute. Secondly, due to its relative scarcity and the ease with which it gets chemically locked up in soils, it is frequently a limiting factor in plant growth and thus highly sought after by farmers.
This, however, is only half of the story. For the full explanation one has to step back in time. Way back. In fact, many billions of years back, to a time when the elements that make up the Earth were being formed inside giant dying stars.
A stellar performance
Stars are the element-producing factories of the universe. Nuclear fusion in the latter stages of a star’s life results in the formation of all the elements that now make up our planet (including ourselves). In an interesting article on the nature of phosphorus (P), Christopher Cummins, Professor of Chemistry at MIT, explains that:
“…the P nucleus is the product of an extremely improbable sequence of nuclear reactions […], only taking place during an explosive neon burning phase in the core of massive, hot stars. Accordingly, the cosmic abundance of phosphorus is lower – by orders of magnitude – than that of the other five biogenic elements.”
He goes on to quote the astrobiologist Douglas Whittet:
“The only biogenic element present in the human body (and in biological tissue generally) at a concentration substantially above its solar abundance is P. If one were to attempt to place an upper limit on the total biomass present in the Universe at large, on the basis of cosmic abundances, then the critical element would be phosphorus.”
Thus, it is ultimately the improbability of the production of phosphorus within exploding stars that has led to its galactic scarcity; and here we are stuck on Earth wasting it as if there’s either no tomorrow, or an infinite supply available.
Whilst stars are the factories of the universe, black holes are the vacuum cleaners, sucking up everything within their gravitational reach, including light. The current configuration of our economies can be compared with the behaviour of black holes: they attract materials and energy from all corners of the globe, and following a brief period of use they pass through an event horizon and are consigned to oblivion.
Our attitude to phosphorus is no different: globally, only one fifth of the phosphorus mined for food production makes it into the food that we eat. Depending on whose estimate you take, global phosphate rock reserves will only last for another 30 to 300 years. The limited reserves of this non-renewable resource in Europe have prompted the European Commission to identify phosphate rock as one of 20 critical raw materials for the EU in 2014. Whilst some such lists are shaped by national circumstances and subjective methodologies, it’s difficult to imagine phosphorus being left off anyone’s list.
Historically, concerns over the pollution of groundwater and surface water bodies have been the main driver behind legislation and efforts to improve efficiencies in the management of phosphate. However, the focus is slowly broadening to include not only the efficient use of phosphate fertilisers but also the effective recovery and management of phosphate rich waste materials. For instance, the European Commission recently published a document, Circular Approaches to Phosphorus: from Research to Deployment, which summarises the details of a workshop held on the subject of how ‘end-of-life’ phosphorus can be captured and reused as part of a “nutrient circular economy”.
Tax and save
The reality, however, is that if we want to move phosphorous off the ‘critical’ list, it’s going to require some quite drastic surgery on the market system that has placed it there. Work undertaken by Eunomia on the potential for environmental tax reform in Europe found that only two European member states currently tax phosphate fertilisers. Fertiliser taxes have the potential to drive efficiencies, so why aren’t they being introduced more widely?
A tax on the phosphate content of fertiliser derived from phosphate rock or guano would improve the economics for extracting phosphate from sources such as wastewater, where struvite (magnesium ammonium phosphate) has traditionally created problems for treatment plants. Hypothecation (revenue earmarking) has become something of a dirty word amongst the fiscally orthodox, but the urgent need for action might justify using some of the tax revenue for more widespread soil testing, to promote methods for enhancing the application of mineral and organic fertilisers, and for other much needed interventions.
Why not also set individual targets for key nutrients derived from biowastes? Sweden, for instance, has already set a 60% recovery target for extracting phosphorus from sewage. The possible points and mechanisms for intervention are numerous and varied, and already widely discussed in the literature. Combined, taxes and targets have the potential to drive the market towards more sustainable utilisation of a scarce resource. All we need, to escape the gravitational pull of our linear agricultural system, is the political will to act.
This brings us back to Nauru, where, half a century on, things are not looking so rosy. The commercially viable phosphorus reserves have been depleted and the country’s small capital reserves have been depleted by a string of bad financial decisions (including a failed investment in a West End musical). Meanwhile, dependence on (typically highly processed) imported food has led to an obesity epidemic, with diabetes also out of control.
Denuded of its phosphate reserves, Nauru turned to banking. Setting itself up as a tax haven, money laundering led it to be blacklisted by the G7 in the early 2000s; in turn, this drove the country to bankruptcy. Then, to pay off its debts and provide much needed employment, the island turned detention centre, controversially hosting Australia’s asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, amidst frequent reports of abuses.
The history of Nauru provides a stark lesson in natural capital economics: if you deplete your assets without investing in maintaining or enhancing the stock of natural capital, you do so at your peril. We see the consequences of our excessive global consumption in the ever earlier arrival of Earth overshoot day; soon its inexorable march will bring it from summer forward to spring.
A hard hitting article published in the Economist some years ago concluded by saying:
“It is a melancholy sign of the islanders’ desperation that the idea of simply buying another island and starting afresh is once again under discussion. But who in his right mind would let the Nauruans get their hands on another island?”
Nauru is a pre-emptive warning for the world at large, which itself is an island in space – and one with no viable means of escape. We might well ask: even if it were possible, who in their right mind would let humanity inhabit another planet? The fate of Nauru should act as a cosmic wakeup call to us all. Some may argue that the Nauruans’ fate was written in the stars, but we still have time to take action and rewrite our destiny: our economy resembles a black hole only because we have designed it that way.