The EPA have just published figures for reporting under the National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD). [1] The NECD sets emission reduction commitments for EU Member States for five important air pollutants which impact air quality, health and the environment, one of which is ammonia. The EPA report highlights that Ireland has now breached its ammonia threshold for three years in a row, from 2016 to 2018. [2]

Ammonia is a toxic gas that is a major by-product of animal-based agriculture that combines with other pollutants to form dangerous air pollutant particles with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), one of the most deadly forms of air pollution. [3] This small particulate matter is well known to be harmful to health, penetrating deep into the lungs, and is linked to higher death rates, respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, cognitive decline and low birth weights. A recent study found that at least 3000 premature deaths could be prevented annually in the UK by cutting ammonia emissions in half. [4]

This gas also poses a serious threat to biodiversity, with well-established links between ammonia and biodiversity loss. It can cause soil acidification and runoff of polluting nitrates into nearby waterbodies. It also enriches some of our most pristine habitats like bogs and heaths, killing the most sensitive species, such as lichens and mosses, and damaging whole ecosystems. Bees and butterflies, our already imperiled pollinators, are also impacted by nitrogen pollution. [5]

Ammonia emissions are largely determined by the cattle population, with 90% of ammonia coming from animal manure. The 2018 increases in ammonia are attributed to a 2.7% increase in the dairy herd, and a 10.7% increase in synthetic fertiliser [6]. These ammonia emissions are projected to continue being non-compliant up to, and beyond 2030, even with the implementation of additional measures. This could leave Ireland open to EU infringement proceedings.

While the Department of Agriculture have drafted a Code of Best Agricultural Practice to help farmers reduce their ammonia output [7], the measures they propose are voluntary, and it is up to the individual farmer to choose which measures to implement, despite the major health and environmental risks posed by this gas. Only limited financial incentives or supports are offered, despite many of the measures being prohibitively expensive, including purchasing specialised low emission slurry spreading machinery.

An Taisce have previously called on the Department of Agriculture to introduce mandatory, timetabled and funded measures which will be most effective at reducing ammonia [8]. They have also called for an outright ban on splash-plate slurry spreading, the predominant method for spreading slurry in Ireland, and one which is known to lead to excessive ammonia emissions.

While effective regulatory action is possible, it does require 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 [9]. 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”.

Ireland’s ammonia breaches are yet another indication that the Foodwise 2025 strategy is unsustainable and environmentally damaging, and in this instance it also poses a threat to human health. The measures proposed by the Department of Agriculture to reduce ammonia are insufficient, and without drastic action, including significant herd reduction, Ireland’s ammonia emissions will continue to rise, leading to the premature deaths of unsuspecting Irish people, and further exacerbating the national and global biodiversity crisis.

Dr. Elaine McGoff, Natural Environment Officer with An Taisce, says:

“This is no longer just an issue of environmental damage by agriculture, it is also a serious risk to people’s health. Ammonia pollution is an issue few are aware of, but it’s quickly becoming a major health and environmental threat in Ireland.”

“Everyone is familiar with the acrid smell of a manure heap, or of slurry being spread, but very few are aware that along with that smell they are potentially inhaling an extremely dangerous air pollutant.”

“Ireland has no effective strategy for combating our increasing ammonia emissions, and even with the implementation of the full arsenal of mitigation measures proposed by the Department of Agriculture we would still exceed the legal threshold. We simply have too many animals producing too much slurry. Herd reduction is one obvious solution, but one which the Department of Agriculture is apparently unwilling to seriously consider.

Professor John Sweeney, emeritus professor at NUI Maynooth and member of An Taisce’s Climate Committee, says:

“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.”


For further information, contact:

Elaine McGoff, Natural Environment Officer, An Taisce: 085 7153796, [email protected]


A new National Emissions Ceilings Directive (NECD) (2016/2284/EU) entered into force on 31 December 2016. The NECD sets national emission reduction commitments for Member States and the EU for five important air pollutants: nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). The Directive requires Member States to put in place a Code of Good Agricultural Practice for reducing Ammonia Emissions from Agriculture.

  2. EPA 2020. Ireland’s Air Pollutant Emissions 1990-2030
  3. Lelieveld, et. al. (2015) "The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale," Nature, 525:
  6. Page 15 of EPA 2020 Ireland’s Air Pollutant Emissions 1990-2030