Breach in EU ammonia limits needs ‘urgent’ attention, says EPA

On-farm measures are key to reducing emissions - environmental watchdog

Animal manures produce about 99 per cent of ammonia emissions in agriculture. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Animal manures produce about 99 per cent of ammonia emissions in agriculture. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Irish agriculture must immediately address a growing ammonia emissions problem, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned in its latest analysis of air pollutants.

The EPA report, which outlines trends on key pollutants up to 2018, confirms Ireland exceeded binding EU limits on ammonia for three years in a row – with emissions 8.7 per cent higher than in 1990.

The problem is separate to the issue of greenhouse gases (GHG) associated with farming, which contribute to global warming. They mainly arise from methane emitted by cattle and account for a third of Ireland’s carbon emissions.

The parties currently in government-formation talks – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens – are planning for a 7 per cent a year cut in these emissions up to 2030, including substantial cuts in agriculture.

Animal manures produce about 99 per cent of ammonia emissions in agriculture; nitrogen fertilizers account for the remainder. They are therefore largely determined by cattle population and nitrogen fertilizer use. Road transport accounts for less than 1 per cent of national emissions.

Expansion of the agriculture sector has led to the breach of ammonia emission ceilings, though the overall level declined between 2016 and 2018. “On-farm abatement measures to reduce emissions require immediate widespread implementation,” the report states.

Further expansion projected into the future “will result in continued non compliance with emission ceilings”, it adds.

Director of the EPA office of environmental sustainability Dr Eimear Cotter, said: “Ammonia emissions need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The underlying drivers are the use of animal manure and nitrogen fertilizers which can be reduced through widespread adoption of on-farm measures.”

Emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) – primarily from transport and diesel- fuelled vehicles in particular – decreased slightly in 2018, but were still above the 2010-2019 emission limit.

Air quality

The EPA published figures for emissions of key air pollutants which impact on air quality, health and the environment including non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter.

Emissions of NMVOCs decreased slightly in 2018. These mostly arise from spirit production in the food and beverage industry, animal manures and fertilizers. There was a small increase in emissions of particulate matter, while emissions of sulphur dioxide continued on a downward trend.

Emissions of all air pollutants need to reduce to protect air quality and health and to meet tightening limits, Dr Cotter underlined. “Lower EU limits will come into effect in 2030. Sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and NOx emissions are projected to reduce and to be compliant, provided planned measures - particularly in relation to the [Government’s] climate action plan – are implemented.”

This depended on switching to cleaner fuels, embracing technology improvements and a significant uptake of electric vehicles, Dr Cotter said.

While full implementation of the 2019 climate plan can deliver a double benefit in terms of reducing GHG emissions and air pollutants, “even further measures are required to reduce NH3 and NMVOC emissions to meet future tight limits in 2030”.

EPA senior manager Stephen Treacy said a national clean air strategy currently under preparation will need to propose measures to reduce air pollutant emissions, particularly where non-compliance with the 2030 limits is projected.

He added: “The transport sector continues to be a significant source of nitrogen oxide emissions as a result of growth in the fleet of cars, vans and trucks. It is important that planned measures are implemented to reduce these emissions and decouple them from economic growth, particularly as we exit current Covid-19 related travel restrictions.”

The EPA figures do not include the impact of Covid-19. It expected the drop off in economic activity and travel will translate into reductions in some air pollutants, particularly nitrogen oxides, which will be evident in projections to 2030 published next year.

The report is available here.