Revised data published by the Environmental Protection Agency confirms that the State has been underestimating ammonia emissions and is now even more seriously in breach of its international obligations. 

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

These revised figures underscore the scale of the issue, and the urgency in dealing with toxic ammonia.

While previous reporting indicated that our total ammonia emissions were already in breach of EU thresholds, this is now recognised as a serious undercount. It highlights that the State has been non-compliant for 7 out of the last 9 years, driven by growth of the agriculture sector.

Ammonia is a toxic gas that is a major by-product of animal-based agriculture that combines with other pollutants to form PM2.5, one of the most dangerous and deadly types of air pollution particles.  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. 

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 pollutes 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 as a result of ammonia deposition. 

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.

Agriculture accounted for 99.4 per cent of total ammonia emissions in 2019. Livestock manure, predominantly cattle, accounts for the bulk of this, combined with synthetic fertiliser. While the report indicates that Ireland could be compliant by 2030 if we implement all possible mitigation measures, achieving that depends on a stable herd size and adherence to the Department of Agriculture’s Code of Best Agricultural Practice which proposes voluntary and largely unfunded measures for farmers to undertake, despite many of the measures being prohibitively expensive and difficult to implement. An Taisce has previously called on the Department of Agriculture to introduce mandatory, timetabled and funded measures which will be most effective at reducing ammonia. This hasn’t happened.  

Dr. McGoff said:

Ireland’s proposed mitigation measures lack credibility given national agri-food policies that continue to support dairy expansion and intensification. National Emission Ceilings give limits on ammonia emissions that Ireland needs to meet every year, not just at some point in the future.

Given the serious human and environmental impacts caused by Ireland’s failure to meet ammonia reduction commitments,  An Taisce has lodged a formal complaint with the EU Commission on this issue. 

While effective regulatory action is possible, it does require political will. Ireland’s ammonia breaches are yet another indication that the intensification of Irish agriculture 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 reductions in nitrogen inputs via fertiliser and feed, 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. McGoff said:

We need urgent progress towards a sustained reduction in emissions via a process of limiting nitrogen inputs to livestock agriculture and ceasing the unsustainable expansion of the dairy herd.

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.