Irish air quality falls as fossil fuel burning and cattle numbers increase

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Caroline O'Doherty

Air pollution has worsened in Ireland because of a growing number of cattle and a rise in the burning of coal and oil.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest report shows increases in four key pollutants measured annually and no change in a fifth where annual improvements are targeted.

Ammonia, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and non-methane volatile organic compounds all registered at higher levels in 2021, the report shows, while particulate matter levels remained unchanged.

The increases included a 9.7pc rise in sulphur dioxide (SO2), a 3pc rise nitrogen oxide (NOx), a 2pc rise I non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) and a 1pc rise in ammonia.

All five pollutants can cause harm to public health when inhaled and can damage wildlife, water sources and plant growth.

The EPA says a trebling in the amount of coal and oil burnt for electricity generation during 2021 is to blame for the rise in NOx and SO2 and the failure to reduce levels of particulate matter (PM2.5).

While levels remained below EU air quality limits, these pollutants can cause respiratory illness and exacerbate existing conditions.

They are particularly problematic for older people, children, people with asthma and the medically vulnerable.

The increase in NOx emissions occurred despite a 4pc reduction in NOx emissions from transport due to lower traffic volumes during 2021.

'The data shows the direct link between fossil fuel use and air pollutant emissions,” said Stephen Treacy of the EPA.

“It highlights the importance of accelerating Ireland’s transition towards renewables for the generation of heat and electricity, which will benefit both the climate and air quality.”

Ammonia is a gas emitted from livestock manure in its raw and slurry form, and from fertilisers.

The EPA warned it can “cause significant environmental damage to valuable ecosystems and can also impact local air quality and human health”.

It registered at 1pc higher in 2021 despite more farmers adopting low-emission slurry spreading practices.

The EPA said the efforts in were not sufficient to counteract the increase in livestock numbers, in particular the 3pc rise in dairy cows.

“Ireland has not complied with EU national emission reduction commitments for nine of the past ten years for ammonia emissions,” Dr Eimear Cotter of the EPA warned.

“More and faster uptake of known measures is needed.”

The increase in emissions of NMVOC was driven largely by increased activity in spirit production for beverages, the report says.

“While compliance with the NMVOC emission reduction commitment has been achieved, effective abatement measures for this source are needed if future emissions reduction targets are to be met,” it says.

Emissions of all but ammonia have fallen significantly since tough new air quality standards came into effect across the EU in 2005 and Ireland is expected to meet even tighter requirements that must be achieved by 2030.

Ammonia levels have grown, however, as agriculture continues to expand. The EPA said it was still possible to meet the 2030 reduction targets but only with an all-out effort to tackle the problem.