The UK’s increasing ammonia emissions in 3 charts

Ammonia pollution is increasing across the UK, mostly driven by a rise from Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector. Here are three charts illustrating the rise.

Ammonia pollution is on the rise, particularly in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

According to the latest government dataset on pollutants, published on 4 October, ammonia pollution has been on the rise since 2014 across the UK as a whole.

Ammonia is a key air pollutant that can have significant effects on the environment as well as indirectly damaging human health by combining with pollution from industry and transport to form very fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can penetrate body organs and contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.  

By far the largest source of ammonia pollution in the UK is agriculture accounting for around 95% of all sources including industrial processes, transport sources, and waste – in England this figure is slightly lower. 

While Scotland’s and England’s ammonia emissions have decreased by 8% (2.7 kilotonnes) and 5% (8kt) respectively between 2000 and 2017, Northern Ireland's emissions have increased by 12% over the same period. 

More recently, the data shows that between 2016 and 2017 Northern Ireland witnessed its largest increase of 1.6 kt or 5%.  

Between 1990 and 2010 ammonia emissions dropped significantly in England, but since 2013 it has been on the rise. 

England’s agriculture sector accounted for 162kt of ammonia emissions in 2017, compared with 83.3kt from the devolved nations. 

Agriculture sources dominate the data sets, with cattle manure management accounting for 38% of the emissions from this sector. Since 2011 emissions have increased largely due to the storage of dairy cattle waste, such as in slurry lagoons and slurry spreading on soil in Northern Ireland, according to the data.

Rising ammonia levels have contributed to the UK breaching the Gothenburg Protocol and National Emissions Ceiling Directive targets four years in a row from 2014 to 2017, which the EU has pardoned each year. The law sets binding limits on gross emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) to be met by 2020, tightening again in 2030.

Speaking with ENDS, James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said his organisation was very concerned about the increase in ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland. 

He said: “We’re looking at the evidence very carefully. It is quite likely that Northern Ireland is pushing the UK into serious breaches of its international obligations".