Emissions of three important air pollutants increased in 2016 – Ireland’s emissions going in the wrong direction for people to benefit from cleaner air

  • EPA reports 2016 emission levels for the five main air pollutants.
  • The figures show that emissions of three of the five air pollutants increased – ammonia, nitrogen oxides and non-methane volatile organic compounds.
  • Emissions of ammonia have been increasing since 2011 and were above the specified EU emission limit in 2016 for the first time.
  • Emissions of two of the other air pollutants, nitrogen oxides and non-methane volatile organic compounds, while in compliance with EU limits for now, are increasing.
  • Emissions of sulphur dioxide continue to decrease.  These were well below the required EU emission limits, substantially due to the use of lower sulphur content fuels in electricity generation and transport.
  • Particulate matter emissions declined in 2016. Future emissions will depend largely on the quantity and quality of solid fuel used in the residential and commercial sectors.

The EPA today published figures for emissions of five key air pollutants. These pollutants impact air quality in Ireland and further afield, causing respiratory problems, pollution of soil and surface water, and damage to vegetation.

Stephen Treacy, Senior Manager with the EPA, said,

“Our figures show that emissions of three of the five main pollutants are going in the wrong direction.  Higher emissions of these pollutants will cause damage to air quality and health and make future compliance with EU limits more challenging.”

This latest information from the EPA shows that Ireland exceeded its emission limits for ammonia for the first time in 2016 and emissions of this gas are increasing. The agriculture sector accounts for virtually all (99 per cent) ammonia emissions in Ireland arising from the application of fertilisers – 40 million tonnes of animal manures are used annually together with 300,000 tonnes of nitrogen in fertilisers.

“Ammonia limits have been breached due to the rapid expansion of dairy and beef production in Ireland in recent years.  This underlines the challenge in designing appropriate policies that protect our environment in a growing economy”, Stephen Treacy said.

The 2016 figures show that Ireland remains in compliance with its nitrogen oxide and non-methane volatile organic carbon emission limits, though these emissions are also increasing.  Transport is the principal source of nitrogen oxide emissions, contributing approximately 41 per cent of the total in 2016. Agriculture is the second biggest source, contributing approximately 29.6 per cent of the 2016 total, mainly due to synthetic fertiliser application and emissions from urine and dung deposited by grazing animals.
The figures published today show that Ireland’s level of sulphur dioxide continues to be well below the EU emission limits. The reduction in the emission of this pollutant is positive for the environment, public health and the economy. The main sources of sulphur dioxide emissions are the power generation, residential and commercial sectors. Effective licencing and enforcement by the EPA has contributed to reductions in these pollutants as well as the use of cleaner fuels in power generation and transport.

Stephen Treacy concluded:

“On the positive side, Ireland has significantly cut emissions of sulphur dioxide, greatly reducing the environmental damage caused by this pollutant, via behaviour change and response to regulatory interventions. While overall emissions of particulate matter also declined in 2016, localised problems can arise because of residential solid-fuel use.”

For further detail on these figures see the EPA web published report Ireland’s Air Pollutant Emissions 2016.

UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution
The LRTAP Convention of 1979 was the first international treaty to deal with air pollution on a broad regional basis. The 32 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. Although Ireland hasn’t yet ratified the Gothenburg Protocol setting out national commitments to abate acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone, the European Union has, and binding national emission ceilings for Ireland are specified in the EU transposition of the Protocol, the National Emissions Ceiling Directive.

National Emissions Ceiling 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 new NEC Directive, which entered into force in December 2016, sets 2020 and 2030 emission reduction commitments for five main air pollutants. It also ensures that the emission ceilings for 2010 set in the earlier directive remain applicable for Member States until the end of 2019.

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 and from the storage and handling of animal manure and fertilisers in agriculture.
  • Fine particulate matter (such as dust) of diameter less than 2.5µm is termed PM2.5. Sources include vehicle exhaust emissions, soil and road surfaces, construction works and industrial emissions. Particulate matter can be formed from reactions between different pollutant gases and is responsible for significant negative impacts on human health.

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