Photo: Ammonia emissions increased in fifteen member states. Photo: / Andrew CC BY

Agricultural ammonia emissions keep on rising

Five EU countries breached their national emission ceilings for ammonia in 2016 and total emissions have now increased by two per cent over three years, preliminary data from the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows.

Emissions of ammonia reduce air quality by increasing the levels of health-damaging secondary particulate matter (PM2.5). Moreover, ammonia disrupts land and water ecosystems through eutrophication – the oversupply of nitrogen nutrients with resulting impacts on biodiversity that currently affects more than two-thirds of the total ecosystem area in the EU.
Between 2015 and 2016, ammonia emissions increased in fifteen member states. For the EU as a whole they rose by 0.4 per cent, mainly due to increases in Italy, the UK and Ireland, reported the EEA.

As of 2010, the EU’s National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive requires member states to meet national emission limits for their total emissions of four important air pollutants: nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs).

However, final emissions data for 2010–2015 and preliminary data for 2016 shows that a number of countries consistently breached their limits for NH3, NOx and NMVOCs in all these years.

Austria and Ireland have now breached their NOx ceilings for seven consecutive years, and Germany, Spain and Croatia have all breached their NH3 ceilings for seven years running (2010–2016).

According to the EEA, emissions from road transport were the main reason for exceedances of the NOx limits, while emissions from agriculture – mainly from the use of fertilisers and the handling of animal manure – were responsible for excessive NH3 emissions.

The emission limits were set in the 2001 NEC directive and are applicable from 2010 until 2019. In 2016, a revised NEC directive was adopted that sets new national emission reduction commitments that are applicable in two steps, from 2020 and 2030, respectively (see AN 1/2017, p.7).

With the adoption of the new NEC directive came a so-called flexibility mechanism that allows member states under certain circumstances to “adjust” downwards their reported emissions for compliance assessment with the national ceilings. This also includes retroactive adjustment of the ceilings for the 2010–2019 period. In March this year, adjustment applications were submitted by eleven countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Spain and the UK). Following a review and possible approval of these applications by the European Commission, the number of countries deemed to exceed one or more emission ceilings in 2016 could decrease from six to four.

The lack of ambition of the new NEC directive, especially regarding the 2020 reduction commitments, has been strongly criticised by environmental organisations. The EEA analysis now shows that in 2016, the aggregated EU emissions for both NMVOCs and SO2 were already below their respective targets for 2020 (see figure). Moreover, emissions of NH3 and particulate matter (PM2.5) are already very close to their respective 2020 targets. Only an additional reduction of about two per cent is required compared to the 2016 level. NOx is the only pollutant for which a slightly more significant reduction (of 6%) is required by the EU as a whole in order to meet the 2020 commitment.

As well as reporting past emissions, member states must also report projected emissions for future target years, in order to assess whether or not they are on track towards meeting their reduction commitments for 2020 and 2030. According to these projections, only nine countries are on track to meet their reduction commitments set for 2020 for all the five pollutants, and no country is on track to meet all of their 2030 commitments.

This situation should however soon improve as member states have to produce and report by 1 April 2019 national air pollution control programmes (NAPCP) that set out the additional emission abatement measures needed to achieve their future emission reduction commitments.

Christer Ågren

Source: EAA briefing on the NEC directive reporting status 2018 (9 July 2018).
Note: More detailed emissions data are published by the EEA in the report “European Union emission inventory report 1990–2016 under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP)”, EEA Report No. 6/2018, which is available at:

Figure: EU progress in meeting the 2010 emission ceilings and the 2020/2030 reduction commitments for the EU as a whole.

Notes: Croatia joined the EU in mid-2013, so for the years 2010–2013 emissions and ceilings are not considered for this country.
The distance to ceilings was calculated taking into account adjusted emissions as approved by 2017.
To assess future attainment of 2020 and 2030 reduction commitments, emissions of NOx and NMVOCs from two main agricultural activities, manure management (3B) and agricultural soils (3D), are not considered. The magnitude of these emission sources is indicated by the top part of the NOx and NMVOC columns. Thus, only the lower part of the NOx and NMVOCs columns should be considered for comparison with the 2020 and 2030 reduction commitments.


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