Specifically, the criticality of phosphorus explores how the element entered into various essential parts of contemporary life, from global food production via industrial processes to high tech and future technologies. It also strongly suggests that phosphorus will be scarce. The question is, when? Since 2008, discussions about a possible “Peak Phosphorus” have triggered numerous studies which aim to determine the amount of extant phosphorus resources (some even predicting its complete disappearance within the next thirty years).
While Arno Rosemarin’s contribution highlights the criticality of Phosphorus within the global agrarian industry, and calls for better national and international governance, Oliver Gantner’s text takes a look into the complexities in the predictions of its sustainability. The criticality of phosphorus seems, at least in the nearer future, not due to the rarity of the element, but rather to factors that range from politics to geopolitics, law to industry, know-how to transparency.
Furthermore, a calculation of phosphorus criticality has to be calculated as the criticality of a specific type of phosphorus in a specific field with its specific value chain, its conditions, processes, functions and structures. The fertilizer industry and the lithium-ion battery production (and therefore the computer and mobile phone market) both rely on phosphorus. An assessment of their criticality will lead to different results based on widely varying factors. But such an assessment, that is not based on the actual element, but rather on its industrial, political, juridical and economic framework highlights yet another problem in the prediction of phosphorus future availability: Data.
The governance issues surrounding phosphorus management within the global food system are complex, non-linear and predominantly driven by markets. As a result, there are numerous uncertainties, externalities and risks in terms of long-term phosphorus sustainability and food security. This necessitates new forms of governance involving steering from the top, commitment, actions, decisions, shared responsibilities and coordination between stakeholders at different territorial levels— supranational, national, regional, and local, enmeshed in territorially overarching policy networks.
Phosphorus is not a well understood element. It is confusing for non-experts to hear that phosphorus is an essential element found in all forms of life, a key component of food and dairy products, but at the same time it can be a water pollutant that causes toxic algal blooms and that it can also be a key component in explosive incendiary devices, pesticides and long-life rechargeable batteries. It is also not well known that phosphorus is one of the key elements in agricultural fertilizer and that nutrient-poor soils have low levels of available phosphate.
Losses and inefficiencies along the phosphorus value chain are significant and it will take decades of technological and governance innovation to improve system components. As Brown (2003) coined it, the present way we use phosphorus is like driving a car at top speed down the highway with no fuel indicator on the dashboard, and we will do nothing until we first run out of gas. This calls for a concerted effort to develop the global and regional governance of this essential and valuable resource.
Governance must operate at multiple scales in order to capture variations in the territorial reach of policy externalities. Since externalities arising from the provision of public goods vary immensely from planet-wide to local, as it is in the case of phosphorus extraction and use, so should the scale of governance which must be multi-level to internalize externalities.
Governance of phosphorus a complex topic since it spans over the entire value chain from mining and extraction to production and use of chemical fertilizers, the agricultural practices depending on soil characteristics and the crops being grown, food and fodder processing, consumption and waste systems including reuse throughout. The threats posed by phosphorus limitation cut across traditional jurisdictions and scopes of organization, and stretches across local to global scale levels.
Unpacking the governance questions surrounding phosphorus reveals a wide array of complex issues at diverse scales including access to data on proven commercial rock reserves, data from exploratory activities, control over exploitation and trade, the role of national and multi-national industries, the role of sovereign governments and regional country partners, and the role of multi-lateral UN and financial organizations. Leadership, coordination and cooperation on these questions has been lacking within the EU until recent years and when it comes to managing phosphorus reserves, leadership remains lacking within the UN system.
Governance must operate at multiple scales in order to capture variations in the territorial reach of policy externalities. Since externalities arising from the provision of public goods vary immensely from planet-wide to local, as it is in the case of phosphorus extraction and use, so should the scale of governance which must be multi-level to internalize externalities. ‘‘Scale’’ refers to spatial, temporal, quantitative, or analytical dimensions used to measure and study any phenomenon, and ‘‘level’’ refers to the units of analysis that are located at different positions on the scale.
Multi-level governance (MLG) is "a system of continuous negotiation among nested government at several territorial tiers". There are both vertical and horizontal dimensions of MLG. ‘‘Multi-level’’ refers to the increased interdependence of governments operating at different territorial levels, while ‘‘governance’’ refers to the increasing interdependence between governments and non-governmental actors at various territorial levels.
The MLG concept considers policy and decision-making processes involving the simultaneous mobilization of public authorities at different jurisdictional levels as well as that of dispersing power horizontally and vertically to the private sector, NGOs and social movements, and are useful in explaining complex governance patterns.
Phosphorus is an essential element with no substitute and is not properly understood by humanity as a critical substance for our survivorship as a species. This beckons a serious review of how it is being governed and managed. There are a number of key interacting factors contributing to the present poor level of phosphorus governance.
These include the common perception among consumers and producers that phosophorus and fertilizers are ubiquitous without limits; little knowledge about the highly skewed geographic distribution of commercial amounts of phosphorus with domination in one country (Morocco); the absence of the UN system in monitoring availability and consumption of phosphorus resulting in uncertainty about the size and extent of the commercial reserves; and the glaring inefficiencies in various steps in the phosphate value chain from resources.
In 2008 when oil prices per barrel exceeded $140, phosphorus world prices increased by eight hundred percent in just a few months. Since then there has been an increased interest in knowing more about the absence of sustainable practices, the low efficiency along the value chain and possible peak behavior in supply.
Geopolitics has a direct and indirect impact on phosphorus market prices. The two significant hikes in 1974 and 2008 occurred in connection with increases in oil prices. The large short-term price hike of eight hundred percent in 2008 resulted in a long-term higher price level which has remained running at about three hundred percent the 2005 levels. That the levels remained high has been classified by Elser et al. (2014) as ‘‘scarcity pricing’’ or an indication of long-term disruption of the phosphate market.
There were several contributing factors that could have contributed to the rapid increase in price during 2008. For example, there was an upswing in biofuel prices and since sulfuric acid (derived mainly from oil refineries) is a key ingredient in the production of phosphoric acid, its price was a significant determinant as well. Other factors were that China imposed an export embargo in 2008, the presence of cartel activity among various producers, political instability in Northern Africa, and preferential free trade agreements between large users and Morocco (e.g., US, India, and EU).
Following the spike in prices in 2008, the UN (FAO) held three global summits on food security but the words fertilizer nor phosphorus cannot be found at all in the declaration (FAO 2009). These meetings reinforced that seventy percent more food will need to be produced by 2050 to meet the demand from nine billion people and that the World Food Program needed increased backing. The need to manage fertilizers and global phosphorus limitations were not discussed. Here again the absence of the UN on the question of phosphorus governance was apparent.
There has been an increased interest in knowing more about the absence of sustainable practices, the low efficiency along the value chain and possible peak behavior in supply Critical needs surrounding phosphorus governance, however, remains a new subject. In 2009 there was discussion surrounding the possible threat of peak phosphorus and a reaction to this in 2010 attempted to redefine the data on commercial reserves particularly for Morocco. This so far has been the most significant change in data governance in modern time for phosphorus and has significantly altered the global outlook on commercial reserves.
Phosphate reserves are defined as geological deposits containing phosphate (RP) that can be economically extracted. Commerciality is determined by both market and technological capacities so this is a changing and dynamic process. Geopolitical factors also contribute to whether a certain deposit is commercially competitive. Phosphate resources go beyond the commercial reserves and include PR that could become commercially viable in the future.
The longevity of the availability of the reserves has been coined ‘‘reserves lifetime’’ and is estimated by dividing the known reserves by the current annual consumption. This estimate is influenced by a number of factors which include: type of deposit, distribution of reserves according to deposit size, costs, price level, intensity of exploration, and development of technology.
The debate on the estimated global PR reserves has attracted much attention during the last decade. Several authors have presented different scenarios for the depletion of PR reserves. One of the most influential is that of Cordell et al. (2009) who first suggested that global PR reserves will run out in thirty to fourty years. A more specific estimate is presented by Wellmer and Becker-Platen (2013) who reported that the PR reserve lifetime was eighty-one years. In 2010, the USGS estimate for global PR reserves was sixteen billion tons. The IFDC (2010) estimate of global commercial PR reserves was much higher at sixty billion tons. IFDC’s method of PR reserve estimation included review of industry and government reports, statistics, scientific literature and presentations (Van Kauwenbergh et al. 2013).
The main source for this change was a reinterpretation of the data for Morocco which was given fifty billion tons of commercial RP from what was originally identified as a potential base reserve. In 2011, USGS followed up with major revisions to its PR estimates and reported a revised global figure of sixty-five billion tons, four times higher than what was previously reported. The IFDC report and the USGS response to it was not followed by the media but had a major impact on dampening the debate on peak phosphorus and stimulating large investments in Morocco as well as other locations in the world. The only reaction to the IFDC report was a critical assessment by Edixhoven et al. (2014) which questions fundamentally the validity of the IFDC assessment.
Indeed, the USGS data when projected over a few decades provides, to say the least, a picture of instability in the system of defining what is and what is not a commercial resource. The data for China, Morocco, Algeria and Iraq have all taken abrupt and massive jumps. These can be seen as indicators of a lack of international governance on how these data are to be scrutinized and published. In the latest USGS report the present known global commercial PR reserves are concentrated mainly in a few countries. Morocco and Western Sahara alone has seventy-four percent of world phosphorus reserves and six countries together hold ninety percent of the reserves. With this as background, the observed absence of an authoritative coordinator such as the UN as a governing body in this question seems all more apparent and this will become even more obvious as the geopolitics of phosphorus become more complicated over the years ahead.
Phosphorus is known for its relevance in biological systems as an essential nutrient for plants. Moreover, phosphorus is a vital element for all life on earth, in particular building the backbone of DNA (desoxyribonucleic acid), and as energy carrier ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Due to this fact, the societal relevance of phosphorus is enormous, especially as humans and animals take up phosphorus trough their diet. Currently, phosphorus is facing less attention in the public awareness except in negative contexts, such as the former eutrophication of water bodies by detergents, or the use of firebombs. The Peak Phosphorus debate changed things and awakened the public and scientific interest.
Peak Phosphorus describes the maximum phosphate rock production rate to a predicted point of time. After the peak of production is reached, phosphorus production is predicted to gradually decline. The Peak Phosphorus concept tries to estimate the duration mankind can proceed to extract phosphate rock in the same rate of production it is being extracted today. Simply, the Peak Phosphorus tries to estimate how long phosphate rock will last.
In 2010 Cordell predicted that Peak Phosphorus will be the year 2033. In the same year Cordell made her prediction, the International Fertilizer Development Centre (IFDC) published a report on global phosphate reserves and resources, resulting in a reassessment of Moroccan reserves. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) accepted this in its data on mineral reserves and resources, which was the database of the Cordell study, and is almost exclusively the database of all work on phosphate scarcity. Following her prediction, the Reserves-to-Production Ratio also changed from one hundred to over three hundred years. Since then, more research was carried on the validity of the Peak Concept.
According to the latest findings the concept of Peak Phosphorus is not applicable on phosphate rock–in particular; phosphorus is not substitutable in biological systems. There will be no supply-driven Peak Phosphorus, but a demand-driven Peak Phosphorus that is likely to be followed by a plateau phase of phosphate consumption. Reserves are not static, but dynamic, and forecasts are only as accurate as their underlying data.
Hereafter, the total the number of projects and initiatives related to phosphorus is growing continuously. At the same time methods of assessing raw materials are gaining more importance and interest, above all raw materials, criticality. Unlike the Peak Concept, or the Reserves-to-Production Ratio, raw materials criticality assessment applies multi-criteria from cradle to cradle, such as geopolitics, law, substitutability, and recycling.
The report “Critical Raw Materials for the EU”, became one of the most popular studies in 2010. Criticality studies aim to give an overview and comparison of multiple raw materials that is easily understood by everyone. In contrast to common belief, there is no standardization on how such an assessment has to be conducted. Hence, undefined possible approaches and different targets and scopes are leading to multiple results, as well as interpretations.
Phosphorus criticality needs to be analyzed due to its societal relevance. Phosphorus has a tremendous variety of industrial applications, besides its main application, fertilizer, or, to a smaller extent, animal feed, which have to be taken into account when assessing its criticality.
The study “Criticality of Phosphorus” focuses on a differentiation of these applications and uses, dealing with different value added and production chains, and unveiling hidden bottlenecks. The study assesses the availability, functionalities, and uses provided by phosphate rock or other phosphate sources, and not just with the finiteness of phosphate rock. It requires a deep, comprehensive, and cross-sectional understanding of phosphate rock reserves, resources, phosphate processing, and all its different end uses.
Sedimentary or igneous phosphate rock is mined and beneficiated to phosphate rock concentrate by crushing, milling, washing, calcining, or flotation techniques. Typically, sulfuric acid is added, which reacts with the phosphate rock concentrate and produces crude phosphoric acid, and, as its by product, phosphogypsum. The crude phosphoric acid serves as intermediate in fertilizer manufacturing to produce phosphate fertilizers by, for instance, adding ammonia. For uses with higher purity requirements than fertilizer, the phosphoric acid is subsequently purified, making it into Purified Wet Phosphoric Acid (PWA).
Another way to process phosphate rock, stemming from former times, is the production of elemental phosphorus (P4), using temperatures of 2000° C. Elemental phosphorus is used to produce thermal acid (TPA), which features high purity and phosphorus derivatives. Together PWA, TPA, P4 and its derivatives form an overlap for the production of food, animal feed, and industrial phosphates. Animal feed (about eight percent), as well as food and industrial phosphates (about seven percent), have lower volumes than the global production of fertilizers (about eighty-five percent). There are myriad of uses in minute quantities that are essential for other functionalities, for example, toothpaste, antifreeze, flame retardants, battery electrolytes, electroless nickel plating, glyphosate, pet food, beverages, baking agents (as well as dairy), seafood, and meat additives.
The assessment of functionalities like applications or end uses show huge range, in particular phosphate fertilizers and a phosphorus derived application like flame retardants show different value added and production chains, and hence may have different bottlenecks in terms of satisfying supply.
Assessing the criticality of functionalities makes these bottlenecks in supply and value chains visible. Unfortunately, this approach needs in-depth analysis and more detailed information than currently exists, which makes it difficult to compile all its relevant data.
China, for instance, is a black box, although it’s currently the world leader in terms of phosphate rock production (forty-four percent), its total phosphate consumption data, beyond cumulative production, is very poor. Information is available for big companies only (e.g., Yuntianhua or Wengfu). There are many small and medium sized enterprises, in particular mines, phosphoric acid, and fertilizer plants but it’s hardly possible to gain even the slightest information about company names and their production data. The reasons are diverse and comprise language barriers or business sensitive information. This is why information on China’s fertilizer industry is basically clustered in the hotspots regions Hubei, Yunnan, or Sichuan only.
Criticality of phosphorus does not result because of the finiteness of the element, but rather from factors that have to do with politics, law, and industry, their know-how and the transparency of their processes and structures, their available data, and its reliability and validity. Criticality of phosphorus has to be assessed as the criticality of a specific type of phosphorus in a specific field, with its specific conditions, processes, and functionalities.
Maybe is my favorite word,
And how I prefer its stochastic definition,
Like that in a Markov chain,
The same way I prefer Voltaire's God,
Where future states depend only upon the present one.
The present and “maybe”,
—D. Kaufman, Maybe