Ammonia emissions in Ireland increased by 2 per cent in 2017, while levels of the noxious pollutant are projected to continue to increase up to 2030, according to the latest EPA figures on air pollution.
Ammonia is toxic, pungent and suffocating but it also causes air pollution and is a greenhouse gas. There is increasing concern that without urgent action, its impact on Irish public health and on the environment will worsen. The 2017 increase is up 5 per cent compared to 2016, and exceeds national limits.
Agriculture is by far the most common source of ammonia emissions, which arise from decomposition of animal manures and the application of fertiliser.
Dr Eimear Cotter, director of the EPA's Office of Environmental Sustainability said: "Our figures show that ammonia levels are on an upward trend, in tandem with increased agricultural production, and that they breached national limits in 2016 and 2017. This has implications for air and water quality."
The figures were published on Tuesday by the EPA which tracks five key air pollutants that impact the environment and health, contributing to respiratory problems and pollution of soil, surface water and vegetation.
The other pollutants are non-methane volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter (PM). Emissions of non-methane VOCs, arising from the food and beverage industry, and the storage and handling of animal manures and synthetic fertilisers, increased in 2017.
Non-methane VOCs are projected to increase slightly to 2030 as the gains from switching to less polluting sources are outweighed by increased economic activity and population growth.
“Ireland is therefore projected to exceed the more challenging 2030 non-methane VOCs emission ceiling, despite being in compliance for 2020,” the EPA noted.
The National Air Pollution and Control Programme will need to address these emissions particularly as they are projected to increase further to 2030, it added. The main driver for these emissions is the application of more animal manure to soils and inorganic fertilisers.
“Options to increase efficiencies and reduce fertiliser use will need to be implemented at farm level,” it said.
Emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and PM decreased in 2017 due to “the impact of fuel switching from coal and peat to natural gas, penetration of renewables and technology improvements”.
Sulphur dioxide and PM emissions are projected to “remain compliant” with substantially lower national limits in 2030, provided planned measures are implemented. However nitrogen oxide emissions, which arise from transport, are projected to increase.
"We have seen the positive impact of a range of policy measures and regulatory interventions since 1990 which are particularly evident in declining sulphur dioxide and particulate emissions," said EPA senior manager Stephen Treacy.
Fuel switching, notably the use of renewables, had brought dividends in terms of cleaner air, with effective regulatory intervention from the EPA also playing a role, he said.
It was important this good work was not reversed in the context of a growing economy, he added. Further measures were needed to meet national limits from now to 2030, particularly for ammonia, nitrogen oxides and non-methane VOCs.
Responding to the figures, An Taisce advocacy officer Ian Lumley said action on reducing ammonia needed to be taken in conjunction with a major reduction of greenhouse gases and “the damaging nature impact of Irish agriculture under current Foodwise 2025 Strategy for expanding beef and dairy exports”.