Wellbeing: Advocacy Work in April 2020
Silent killer - spiralling agri pollution threatens rural and urban lives
Major reductions in vehicular traffic arising from the coronavirus crisis have led to welcome improvements in air quality in Ireland and across Europe. This is all the more critical as studies show that people living in high-pollution areas are more susceptible to the impacts of coronavirus .
However, the reduction in vehicular pollution has drawn attention to another deadly source of air pollution, arising from ammonia, a toxic gas that is a major by-product of animal-based agriculture that harms ecosystems and combines with other pollutants to form dangerous air pollutant particles.
Apart from being a health hazard to farmers, their families and other rural dwellers, ammonia emissions account for around 50% of the total health impacts of polluted air in urban areas as well . Ammonia is acrid and suffocating; in recent weeks residents in Brussels complained of stinging eyes and headaches as a result of ammonia wafting in from the surrounding farmlands .
A motion overwhelmingly adopted by MEPs in the European Parliament last year urged that payments under the EU’s massive Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) ‘should depend on the implementation of mandatory measures for curbing (agricultural) pollution’ .
However, in Ireland, ammonia emissions have risen steadily, year on year, in line with government policy to expand dairy and other animal agriculture, supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and enabled by Teagasc, the state’s agricultural research agency.
In 2017 for instance, the EPA recorded a 2% increase in ammonia emissions, and projects these to continue to climb to at least 2030 . Ireland has been exceeding its agreed national EU limits of ammonia emissions since 2016. Animal manures account for upwards of 90% of Ireland’s total ammonia emissions, with chemical fertilisers and road transport accounting for the balance. Overall, Ireland’s agricultural sector accounts for 99% of ammonia emissions, with well over 40 million tonnes of animal manures spread on the land annually as well as over 400,000 tonnes of nitrogen inputs in chemical fertilisers.
The key determinant of the total amount of dangerous airborne ammonia emissions is the total use of nitrogen inputs and the number of farm animals. The major expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd has been accompanied by steady increases, year on year, in total ammonia emissions since 2011. “Ammonia limits have been breached due to the rapid expansion of dairy and beef production in Ireland in recent years”, Stephen Treacy, Senior Manager with the EPA confirmed at the 2018 launch of the Authority’s report on air pollution .
Teagasc’s own Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC)  includes ‘measures’ that depend on a reduction in animal numbers in order to limit the total amount of nitrogen being produced, and so also limiting greenhouse gas and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture.
But instead, Teagasc recommends that farmers use more nitrogen  and continue to expand dairy numbers  – this is in clear and blatant breach of Ireland’s EU obligations to cut levels of these dangerous emissions. Moreover, Teagasc is now pushing a change in nitrogen fertiliser type that increases ammonia emissions and does nothing to cut methane .
The Department of Agriculture’s own data (DAFM, slide 7)  shows that without measures ammonia emissions are set to spiral upwards all the way to 2035, despite Ireland’s ceiling for emissions being steadily lowered during this period. As An Taisce made clear in an ammonia consultation submission last year , the Department's measures as outlined by Teagasc cannot square this pollution-intensive expansion with its legal obligations. Unenforceable codes of practice with no real teeth will not deliver; hard limits on total national nitrogen usage are needed.
Effective regulatory action is possible, but requires political will. Earlier this year, the UK unveiled a sweeping air quality plan that includes plans to cut ammonia emissions from agriculture by 16% by 2030. The move came in the wake of a UK Environment Agency finding that ammonia was the only major air pollutant to increase since 2013, and that emissions from farms would continue to rise without “urgent action”.
Studies have shown that a 50% reduction in toxic agricultural emissions could prevent a quarter of a million deaths from air pollution worldwide . Complete elimination of airborne agricultural pollution would see this rise to nearly 800,000 lives saved annually.
Research published in the science journal ‘Nature’  found that agricultural ammonia emissions had a ‘remarkable’ impact . One in five of all global deaths from air pollution resulted from these emissions, which come mainly from cattle, chickens and pigs and from the over-use of chemical fertilisers .
The effect of airborne ammonia is intensified when it reacts with fumes from traffic and industry to form a deadly fine particulate matter known as PM2.5. Extraordinarily, the study found that 48% of all the premature deaths in the city of London were ultimately as a result of agricultural pollution.
Commenting on the ‘Nature’ study, Professor Michael Jerrett of the University of California noted: “agriculture has generally not been seen as a major source of air pollution or premature death, and (the study) suggests that much more attention needs to be paid to agricultural sources, by both scientists and policymakers” .
Climatologist, John Sweeney, emeritus professor at NUI Maynooth and member of An Taisce’s climate change committee added: “Ireland has to start taking its legal obligations on tackling air pollution seriously. The pursuit of profits for one sector cannot be at the cost of endangering public health by damaging our air quality, especially now in the midst of the tremendous national effort to tackle coronavirus.”
Contacts: Professor John Sweeney (087-2476516); John Gibbons, PRO (087-2332689)
 World Economic Forum (April 2020) "The deadly link between COVID-19 and air pollution": https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/the-deadly-link-between-covid-19-and-air-pollution/
 European Environmental Bureau (March 2019) "Time to cap agricultural pollution say MEPs": https://meta.eeb.org/2019/03/14/time-to-cap-agricultural-pollution-say-meps/
 European Environmental Bureau (April 2020) "The Big Stink: Europe's lockdown uncovers a surprising source of air pollution": https://meta.eeb.org/2020/04/02/the-big-stink-europes-lockdown-uncovers-a-surprising-source-of-air-pollution/
 European Parliament motion, 13 March 2019, A Europe that protects: Clean air for all: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2019-0186_EN.pdf?redirect
 EPA (2017) "Ireland's air pollutant emissions 2017 (1990-2030)": https://www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/air/airemissions/irelandsairpollutantemissions2017/
 EPA press release (March 2018) "Emissions of three important air pollutants increased in 2016 – Ireland’s emissions going in the wrong direction for people to benefit from cleaner air": https://www.epa.ie/newsandevents/news/pressreleases2018/name,63848,en.html
 Teagasc Greenhouse Gas Working Group (March 2019) "An Analysis of Abatement Potential of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Irish Agriculture 2021-2030": teagasc.ie/media/website/publications/2018/An-Analysis-of-Abatement-Potential-of-Greenhouse-Gas-Emissions-in-Irish-Agriculture-2021-2030.pdf
 Teagasc (January 2019) Presentation to ASA Dairy Masterclass: "Soil Conditions & Nutrient Balances: effects of dairy grassland productivity": https://www.asaireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/David-Wall-Soil-Conditions-and-Nutrient-Balances-compressed.pdf
 Independent.ie (28 June 2019) "Thinking of switching to dairy farming? Here's the first step": https://www.independent.ie/storyplus/thinking-of-switching-to-dairy-farming-heres-the-first-step-38262286.html
 Teagasc "Protected urea": teagasc.ie/media/website/environment/climate-change/Andy-Boland--Patrick-Forrestal---Protected-urea-board-resized.pdf
 Dept. of Agriculture, Food and the Marine "Reducing GHG emissions in Irish Agriculture": https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/publications/2020/Reducing-GHG-emissions-in-Irish-Agriculture.pdf
 An Taisce submission on the Code of Good Agricultural Practice for Reducing Ammonia Emissions from Agriculture (2019): https://www.antaisce.org/publications/an-taisce-submission-on-code-of-good-agricultural-practice-for-reducing-ammonia
 Pozzer, et. al. (2017) "Impact of agricultural emission reductions on fine-particulate matter and public health," Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 17: https://www.atmos-chem-phys.net/17/12813/2017/
 Lelieveld, et. al. (2015) "The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale," Nature, 525: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature15371
 The Guardian (16 Sept 2015) "More people die from air pollution than Malaria and HIV/Aids, new study shows": https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/16/more-people-die-from-air-pollution-than-malaria-and-hivaids-new-study-shows
 Ahmed et. al. (2017) "Excessive use of nitrogenous fertilizers: an unawareness causing serious threats to environment and human health," Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 24: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11356-017-0589-7
All political parties must commit to deep and rapid emissions cuts in line with science and justice
Much public and media discussion around the Green Party’s insistence on any future government committing to a minimum of 7% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions per annum appears to focus on the supposedly ‘unrealistic’ nature of these targets.
The former Minister for Climate Action Denis Naughten TD has, for example, been quoted as describing this reduction rate as “unsustainable and unachievable”. In so doing, Mr. Naughten appears to have forgotten that the government he represented fully signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which commits Ireland to urgent and dramatic emissions cuts in line with the science and climate justice.
Prof Barry McMullin of An Taisce’s Climate Committee, noted: “It is thanks to political procrastination and predatory delay that today’s targets have become so challenging. Every year that vested interests and lobbyists, abetted by politicians with little care for science, have enabled inaction and delay on tackling the climate emergency has made effective action far more onerous than would have been necessary had we collectively acted in a timely manner. Sadly, we cannot simply turn the clock back and ‘start over’: we must deal with the much deeper crisis we have now created.”
Despite this reality, current media commentary continues to place the onus exclusively on the Green Party both to insist on the required emissions reduction pathway, and to explain in detail how this should be delivered on. An Taisce believes this is misleading and unhelpful. Rather than making a political “demand”, the Green Party is simply reflecting the overwhelming scientific consensus on the minimum steps needed to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change.*
[*Note that An Taisce is strictly non-party-political; these comments do not imply support or endorsement of any specific political party.]
Such targets, and the responsibility for measures to achieve them, do not ‘belong’ to any one party or group: they represent the clearest understanding of the scale of the challenge and the time frame within which global humanity, including here in Ireland, now has to respond.
The currently suggested figure of an overall emissions reduction compounding at a rate equivalent to at least 7% per year is based on the 2019 “Emissions Gap” Report from the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) which assessed the global average rate now required to maintain a plausible chance of limiting temperature rise within the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement as being at least 7.6%, compounding each year from 2020 onward.
But it is critical to emphasise that this does not apply as an equal requirement for all countries.
For a relatively wealthy, high per-capita-emitting country like Ireland, the required annual reduction rate is now considerably higher, as this must reflect the "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" between different countries.
Thus, it is An Taisce’s view not only that the suggested 7% per annum reduction rate is indeed the absolute minimum that must be included and actively endorsed by all partners in any proposed programme for government, but that the programme must commit to enshrining this in a new Climate Ambition Act, with full independent recourse by citizens to the courts to ensure enforcement, within the first hundred days of such a Government taking office.
Further, a restructured and rebalanced Climate Change Advisory Council, with appropriate expertise in physical climate science, ecological economics, international development and climate ethics, must be mandated to critically assess the further increase in mitigation ambition necessary for Ireland to play its fair share in this unprecedented global effort. This should be coupled to a properly scaled and resourced “national climate dialogue” process that gives the opportunity to every citizen to engage with and influence this immense national effort.
“We believe it is now incumbent on those parties and commentators who reject such commitments to declare openly and honestly whether they reject the science, or the ethics, or both”, added Prof McMullin.
In our view, you can’t claim to accept the expert diagnosis while rejecting the treatment path set out by those same experts. It is now beyond time to commit to “flattening the curve” on climate change, before our collective ability to respond is overwhelmed.
Contacts: John Gibbons, PRO (087-2332689), Prof. Barry McMullin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Submission on the Draft National Marine Planning Framework
An Taisce has made a submission to the public consultation on the Draft National Marine Planning Framework (Draft NMPF) published by the Department of Housing Planning and Local Government. There is an EU legal obligation, under the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive, for Governments to prepare a marine plan, which considers economic, social and environmental aspects to support sustainable development and growth in the maritime sector.
The Draft NMPF in its current form is simply a business-as-usual approach, one which facilitates continued overfishing, ecologically damaging aquaculture, continued oil and gas exploration, and port expansion based on the continued growth of unsustainable imports such as animal feed, oil, cars and fertiliser. In failing to fully integrate and prioritise biodiversity and climate concerns it is failing to chart a sustainable way forward.
In responding to the Draft NMPF, An Taisce has set out a range of recommendations that promote taking an ecosystems approach, for truly integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes sustainable use in an equitable way. This includes the need to delineate quantifiable and timetabled targets for all plan objectives; to require robust ecological assessments for all marine activities using the best scientific tools and data available; and to ensure that monitoring actions are specific, assessable and effective.
Time to Invest in a Healthy Future: Time for a Green and Just Recovery
An Taisce wrote today to each of the 13 Irish MEPs to demand sustainable recovery investments.
While the immediate priority is to address the public health emergency, public stimulus packages are being developed to relaunch the economy. Given the monumental size of these investments, how we invest this money will determine whether we succeed or fail in the fight against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, widespread pollution and inequality.
In our message, we explained that the EU and its governments must therefore demonstrate leadership and foresight by directing all public stimulus investments at accelerating the transition to a just, resilient and sustainable economy, and safeguarding the implementation of the European Green Deal.
Specifically, An Taisce, along with likeminded NGOs, EU governments, scientists and many private sector organisations, is calling for a taxonomy of sustainable practices to be agreed and to be considered suitable for recovery financing. This would presumably exclude carbon intensive industries such as aviation and intensive agriculture, for example.
In response, Clare Daly MEP said
Needless to say, I agree with everything in the statement outlined by An Taisce. These are actually a lot of the same points that we are making. Returning to "normal" would be completely wrong as normal is part of the problem and we do have a once in a lifetime opportunity now to get things right. The economy will need a strong kick start and that should only be done in a sustainable and socially responsible way. Rest assured we will be arguing this position at every turn.
Frances Fitzgerald MEP said
I agree with the sentiments expressed in your email... I truly believe that any economic recovery plan should be fully integrated with a green and sustainable economy. This is vital for the future of Europe and our planet. There is an opportunity to emerge from this crisis with a new and more equitable plan... The money Europe will reinvest in the economy must be consistent with the European Green Deal. This is not just for the sake of the environment but to also build greater resilience within our societies and economies. As mentioned in your email ‘a just transition for all’ should be at the heart of any such plan.
Meanwhile, Barry Andrews MEP had good news
My group Renew Europe proposed a resolution which was adopted by the European Parliament last week which set as a core priority for recovery that the Green Deal be adhered to.
But Fitzgerald went on to say
Through my work on the ECON Committee, I have already been in contact with European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis who has assured me that the main goals of the European Green Deal will remain in place despite the COVID-19 emergency, including the goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.
There is a lot of room for manoeuvre in the phrase “the main goals... will remain in place”, so we must remain vigilant. Fitzgerald added that the EU's taxonomy for sustainable finance will be established fully by the end of 2021, meaning it will come too late to have the impact we need on decisions taken now.
A spokesperson for Grace O'Sullivan said that she
will work towards this vision by advocating for increased action against climate change and biodiversity loss supported by a major green recovery fund, all the while keeping the principle of a just transition at the heart of the recovery... Grace and her fellow Green Party MEP, Ciarán Cuffe, were very happy to hear that Ireland joined the list of EU member states calling for a green recovery plan.
A spokesperson for Mick Wallace MEP said
Mick fully supports the demands in your email... Mick is a member of the Environment Committee in the EU Parliament and will certainly be calling for these demands to be met.
A spokesperson for Maria Walsh MEP said
I will say that after COVID-19 the EU will have to have discussions on what we need to adjust in the future. Like how we continue with the Green Deal, whether health policy should become more of an EU competency or at the very least whether our emergency responses need to be more connected and how we in Europe become less reliant on non-EU markets for certain supplies. Maria will partake in these discussions as much as she can, without being a member of the ENVI committee, to ensure that the protection of our environment and the reduction in CO2 and climate change emissions remain a priority for the European Parliament, throughout the recovery to 'business as usual'.
It's a kind of progress that politicians have moved past considering these changes unimaginable and they are now considering their feasibility instead.
Full Text of our message to MEPs, which was written in collaboration with groups across Europe and co-ordinated by the EUROPEAN FEDERATION FOR TRANSPORT AND ENVIRONMENT:
An Taisce calls upon you as an MEP to tackle the unprecedented crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic with unity, courage and innovation.
During this time of crisis, which is taking the lives of many and putting people's livelihoods at risk, it is essential that our leaders issue a strong response. We therefore welcome the plans to make substantial funds available to fight the health emergency, tackle unemployment, and support Europe’s small businesses, but more will be needed.
Millions of Europeans long for an end to the lockdown, to be reunited with our family and loved ones, and to get back to work. But we do not want a return to business as usual, to an economic model which has exacerbated social inequalities, jeopardised our health, and driven our planet’s climate and nature to the brink of collapse. Instead, we believe that now is the time to radically and rapidly make our economies greener, fairer, and more resilient to future shocks.
While the immediate priority is to address the public health emergency, public stimulus packages will have to be developed to relaunch the economy, create millions of jobs and support people - especially the most vulnerable - through this difficult time. How we respond to the crisis will determine whether we succeed or fail in the fight against climate change, the loss of nature, widespread pollution and inequality, and create health benefits for all. The EU and its governments must therefore demonstrate leadership and foresight by directing all public stimulus investments at accelerating the transition to a just, resilient and sustainable economy, boosting the European Green Deal to deliver even more.
We call upon political leaders to develop comprehensive EU and national Sustainable Recovery Plans. In particular, this means:
- Step up policy action against climate change and biodiversity loss at EU, national and international level, by strengthening and continuing the implementation of the targets, strategies and laws announced in the European Green Deal;
- In high-carbon and other potentially polluting sectors such as intensive agriculture, make support to companies conditional on their alignment with environmental and climate objectives. No bailouts should be given to unviable or polluting industries that have no future in tomorrow’s economy. State aid, loans, subsidies and other direct or indirect support to companies must come with strict conditions, monitored and enforced by the EU, and focus on sustainable initiatives and the creation of sustainable jobs;
- The establishment of a sizable green recovery fund backed up by all available EU financial tools (including the MFF and its spending programmes, new funds, the use of the European Stability Mechanism and exploring so-called ‘eurobonds’), to finance the green and just recovery. These interventions must be based on established principles such as transparency, accountability and community-driven solutions.
- Public and private investment throughout the recovery should be guided by the EU’s taxonomy to accelerate the shift from polluting into green sectors; similarly the European Investment Bank should bring its lending policies in line with the European Green Deal objectives by end 2020; In addition, sustainable finance policies should be accelerated and a taxonomy of unsustainable practices to be excluded agreed.
- All recovery plans must put people’s wellbeing at the heart of the crisis response and deliver social benefits and protect workers’ rights through a ‘just transition for all’.
We support the many appeals for green recovery that have blossomed across Europe: By 13 EU governments, Members of the European Parliament, the Club of Rome, scientists, NGOs, 200 representatives from business and politics, energy companies, and many more. The European Council had also called on the EU to prepare an economic recovery plan that would integrate the green transition. To these voices we add ours.
Please do not let these calls go unanswered.
Kind regards, Stuart.
Stuart McCaul Hon. Secretary An Taisce - The National Trust for Ireland