Uncovering Nitrogen and Phosphorus — the “Cinderella” Global Material Flows
A Consortium of UK universities, led by CFGNet member Professor Jim Hall at Oxford University, has recently completed a Fast Track Analysis (FTA) of national infrastructure provision in Great Britain. A significant part of the FTA looked for synergies among the ICT, energy, transport, water, wastewater, and solid waste sectors. We take a look at the questions this raises for our work on CFG and urban metabolism — and vice versa. For one thing, what do we mean by “Cinderella Material Flows”?
Energy — Not Water — Is Primus Inter Pares
The message is clear from the Consortium (Executive Summary, FTA, UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC)):
[C]urrent governance arrangements continue to operate in isolated sector-specific silos, paying limited attention to cross-sectoral synergies and interdependencies.
The ITRC is seeking to explore how integrated cross-sectoral approaches may yield new insights and benefits.
And this is one of its findings:
The FTA has revealed the importance of cross-sectoral interdependence, in particular via energy demand from all sectors.
Here, then, it is energy (not water) that is primus inter pares, in contrast to what one reads elsewhere of the Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus (See the books published by the World Economic Forum and the Stockholm Environment Institute).
Yet the Executive Summary goes on to conclude:
The FTA has not revealed new opportunities that could be accessed by taking interdependence into account, though these may exist at the scale of individual facilities or infrastructure corridors. However, understanding interdependence is essential to recognise new cross-sectoral demands that otherwise might not be accommodated and to minimise the risks of infrastructure failure.
On the surface, this seems a bit bleak. One senses disappointment almost. If this is the case, we would like to help raise spirits.
The Surface World of Sectors — The Underground World of Material-Energy Flows
Could it be perhaps that these very silos — energy, transport, water, wastewater, information and communications technology (ICT), and so on — are merely the superstructure in our thinking? Their analysis, albeit cross-sectoral and integrated, will yield some insights, but not others, in particular — we fear — regarding potential opportunities for synergy. There is an underground world governing other ways in which all the sectors are bound together by a substratum of deeply intertwined material-energy flows, especially at the essential point of service and consumption in the city. Both layers, the sectors and the material-energy flows, are present in our Multi-sectoral Systems Analysis (MSA). What we now have to say is based on our experience of working with MSA.
To begin with, we should enquire whether the opportunities for synergies (while avoiding antagonisms) at the point of consumption in the city, largely on the demand side, have any bearing on the way infrastructure is provided at a national scale — “upstream”, as it were, and largely on the supply side.
Lifting away the superstructure of sectors, the substratum or urban (indeed global) metabolism can be revealed. Those who work on it, or rather, on their particular, single-sector parts of it, have generated headline-worthy — above-the-surface — phrases, such as these. Followers of the N cycle argue that the 21st Century will be a “Nitrogen Economy”. For others it will be the Century in which “Peak Phosphorus”, or “Peak Food”, will render “Peak Oil” a mere bump in the global economic super-highway.
Telling here, of course, is the fact that these calls for greater attention to the otherwise under-appreciated global N and P cycles — so vital for food security — resort to drawing parallels with the (self-evidently) much better appreciated energy sector, its security, and its companion global C cycle. In this sense, nitrogen and phosphorus are the “Cinderellas”. There are no nitrogen or phosphorus sectors in the superstructure. There is not even a food sector properly elevated upwards into the way we think about and analyze infrastructure. Little thought is given to the massive N and P flows in the energy sector, whenever C-based fuels, including biofuels, are the basis of generating electricity or the motion of vehicles.
Out From Underneath
It is time, therefore, for nitrogen and phosphorus to emerge from the basements of infrastructure thinking and analyses, “to go to the ball”, one might say. After all, energy — and carbon by association — are already there (in this ITRC FTA), as too is water, so prominent in the recent global and international discussions of nexus security.
Here is where and how superstructure is inadequately related to substructure:
- N and P in the substructure — in providing nutrition to people — are serviced by the food distribution network, itself subsumed (in part) under the transport sector. Even the food sector, never mind the nutrition sector, is thus absent from the conventional language of the superstructure.
- Processed food, moreover, ends up in the wastewater and solid waste sectors, so that commercially significant amounts of N and P end up in these misnomers of the superstructure.
- For as long as fossil (C) fuels and (C) biofuels are employed for anything in the familiar energy and transport sectors, unfamiliar, but commercially significant, amounts of N and P will remain latent in those fuel flows and their residues after consumption.
And So Once More: Climate Change Drives Market for Urine-Separating Toilets
This is not obvious, nor is it meant to be. The point, in fact, is the very absence of an obvious connection between climate and household plumbing in the superstructure of our thinking. Yet in the substructure of material flows, the toilets (from the water sector) capture that which is most rich in N and P (nominally destined otherwise for the food sector), given which precursor, together with the C in CO2 taken from the atmosphere (the climate “sector”), algae may be grown to generate renewable biofuels downstream, in the energy sector.
Something to Puzzle Over in the ITRC FTA
If one squints from afar at the summary and key figure in the FTA — it is Figure 12, for “transition strategy performance assessment using cross-sectoral metrics of cost, emissions and security of supply” — what one deduces is this (across all the scenarios investigated):
- The ICT sector most easily attains a high performance, especially over the near-term future (2010-2030), followed by the solid-waste (paper, glass, plastics, e-waste, metals) and energy sectors — the former (solid waste) over both the near term and the longer term (2030-2050), the latter (energy) especially in the longer term;
- The water sector attains a high performance with some (qualified) ease, albeit more so in the near term; but
- The transport and wastewater sectors both struggle to attain high performances on most accounts, with transport being particularly poor in respect of emissions, while the wastewater sector is especially expensive, i.e., poor, in its performance under a de-centralizing scenario.
What does this tell us about cross-sectoral synergies and antagonisms? When you have visited the ITRC FTA site, and pondered this for a while, we would be delighted to hear your thoughts. The report can also be downloaded from here: ITRC FTA Executive summary and ITRC FTA Technical report.
Contributed by M. B. Beck