Growth in agricultural activity driving increased ammonia emissions in Ireland in 2021 – EPA

  • Ireland’s ammonia emissions increased by 1% in 2021 as the impact of higher livestock numbers and fertiliser use outpaced the impact of emission reduction measures currently being implemented at farm level
  • Ireland is non-compliant with our EU Emissions Reduction commitment in 2021 for Ammonia. Compliance with the 2030 Reduction Commitment is only possible with full implementation of all identified measures such as low emissions slurry spreading and widespread use of inhibited urea fertiliser products.
  • The use of coal and fuel oil in power generation trebled in 2021 leading to increases in emissions of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Particulate Matter (PM2.5) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), showing the direct link between fossil fuel use and air pollutant emissions.
  • Ireland was compliant in 2021 with EU emissions reduction commitments for the other key air pollutants; non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
  • Additional actions are needed to reduce emissions of non-methane volatile organic compounds in the spirit production sector.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published its 2021 assessment of five key air pollutants which impact air quality, health and the environment. The pollutants are:

  • ammonia, 
  • non-methane volatile organic compounds
  • sulphur dioxide
  • nitrogen oxides
  • fine particulate matter 

Ammonia emissions increased in 2021 by nearly 1%. Growth in livestock numbers, including a 3 per cent increase in dairy cow numbers, led to an increase in total national ammonia emissions. Increased use of low emission slurry spreading to 48 percent was not sufficient to counteract the impact of the overall growth in livestock numbers.   
Ireland has not complied with EU National Emission Reduction Commitments for 9 of the past 10 years for ammonia emissions, which cause significant environmental damage to valuable ecosystems and can also impact local air quality and human health. 

Commenting on the report Dr Eimear Cotter, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment said:
‘The EPA’s assessment shows that the impact of good practices that are currently being implemented at the farm level, such as low emission slurry spreading and the use of protected urea, are not enough to counteract the impact of increased livestock numbers and fertiliser use. More and faster uptake of known measures is needed.While compliance with the EU 2030 targets for ammonia is possible, it will be tight and is at risk should anything less than full implementation of all measures be delivered, or if the level of activity in the sector exceeds projections. “
The use of coal and fuel oil in power generation trebled in 2021 which led to increases in emissions of NOx, PM2.5 and SO2 illustrating the direct link between fossil fuel use and air pollutant emissions . Emissions of NOx increased by 3 per cent overall driven by increased fossil fuel use in power generation. These increases masked a decrease in NOx emissions from transport of almost 4 per cent in 2021 reflecting a continued improvement in vehicle NOx abatement technologies.
Commenting on the findings Stephen Treacy, Senior Manager said: ‘The data shows the direct link between fossil fuel use and air pollutant emissions, highlighting the importance of accelerating Ireland’s transition towards renewables for the generation of heat and electricity, which will benefit both the climate and air quality.” Emissions of non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) increased by 2 per cent in 2021, driven largely by increased activity in spirit production for beverages. While compliance with the NMVOC emission reduction commitment has been achieved, effective abatement measures for this source are needed if future emissions reduction targets are to be met. 
For further detail on these figures, see the EPA report Ireland’s Air Pollutant Emissions 1990-2030 on the EPA website.

UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP)
The LRTAP Convention of 1979 was the first international treaty to deal with air pollution on a broad regional basis. The signatories to the Convention agreed the principles of international cooperation for air pollution abatement. The number of substances covered by the Convention and its protocols has been gradually extended over time, notably to include ground-level ozone, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals and particulate matter. The Gothenburg Protocol sets out national commitments to abate acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone and the European Union has set binding national emission reduction commitments for Ireland are in the EU transposition of the Protocol, the National Emission Reduction Commitments Ceiling Directive.
National Emission Reduction Commitments  Directive
Directive (EU) 2016/2284 (replacing 2001/81/EC) ‘on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants’ sets national emission reduction commitments for Member States and the EU for five important air pollutants: nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide, ammonia and fine particulate matter. The NEC Directive, which entered into force in December 2016, sets 2020 and 2030 emission reduction commitments for five main air pollutants.
Five main air pollutants

  • Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) is the major precursor to acid deposition (including “acid rain”), which is associated with the acidification of soils and surface waters and the accelerated corrosion of buildings and monuments. Emissions of SO2 are derived from the sulphur in fossil fuels such as coal and oil used in combustion activities.
  • Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) contribute to acidification of soils and surface waters, tropospheric ozone formation and nitrogen saturation in terrestrial ecosystems.  Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is also associated with diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Power generation plants and motor vehicles are the principal sources of nitrogen oxides, through high-temperature combustion.
  • Ammonia (NH3) emissions are associated with acid deposition and the formation of secondary particulate matter. The agriculture sector accounts for virtually all (99 per cent) of ammonia emissions in Ireland.
  • Non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) are emitted as gases by a wide array of products including paints, paint strippers, glues, cleaning agents and adhesives. They also arise as a product of incomplete combustion of fuels, from the storage and handling of animal manure and fertilisers in agriculture and from spirit production.
  • Fine particulate matter (such as dust) of diameter less than 2.5 micrometres is termed PM2.5. Sources include vehicle exhaust emissions, soil and road surfaces, construction works and industrial emissions and agriculture. Particulate matter can be formed from reactions between different pollutant gases and is responsible for significant negative impacts on human health.

Ireland is one of 14 EU Member States issued with a letter of formal notice by the European Commission, in January 2023, calling on countries to respect their emission reduction commitments as required by Directive 2016/2284.  In Ireland’s case the letter related to the exceedance of the 2020 emission reduction commitment for ammonia.

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