EPA releases figures for key air pollutants

Date released: Feb 26 2013

  • EPA figures show that emissions of the air pollutant nitrogen oxide (NOx) in 2011 were above the specified EU emission ceiling.
  • Reducing NOx emissions requires a range of measures including travelling less by car and using newer and smaller vehicles with improved emission control technologies.
  • Emissions of air pollutants sulphur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ammonia (NH3) were well within the required EU emission limits.

The EPA today published figures for four key air pollutants responsible for long-range transboundary air pollution such as acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone pollution.

This latest information from the EPA shows that in 2011, emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) were above the specified emission ceiling.  While some reductions in NOx levels from the transport sector have been delivered since 1990 through technological improvements, these have not been as substantial as originally anticipated. Advances in emission controls have been largely off-set by increases in vehicle numbers and fuel use during a time of significant economic growth over the period 1990 to 2008. Reducing NOx emissions requires travelling less by car as well as the uptake of new vehicles with improved emission control technologies.

Dr Eimear Cotter, Senior Manager, EPA said,

 “High nitrogen oxide emissions pose a threat to human health as a respiratory irritant, particularly in people with asthma. The key to decreasing nitrogen oxide emissions lies in reducing travel and incentivising the purchase of cleaner vehicles with improved emission controls.  Changing behavioural patterns in these two areas will reduce emissions so contributing to a cleaner, healthier environment and a better quality of life”.

The figures also show that levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOC) and ammonia (NH3) were below the EU emission ceilings. The main sources of these emissions are power generation, residential and commercial sectors for SO2; solvent use and transport for VOCs; and agriculture for NH3. Reductions in these three pollutants have been achieved through a diverse range of measures including effective licencing and enforcement by the EPA, stricter regulation of VOC emissions from vehicles and declining animal numbers in the agriculture sector.

Commenting on the figures Dr Cotter, said:

“The switch to low sulphur fuels and low solvent products such as paints is welcome, and has kept Ireland below EU emission ceilings for sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds.  Ammonia emissions have stayed reasonably constant since 1990, however, ambitious targets under Food Harvest 2020 could put pressure on ammonia emissions into the future.”


Notes to Editor:

Changes to transboundary air pollutant emissions are as follows:

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx):

Emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) decreased by 47% between 1990 and 2011. Between 2010 and 2011 there was a 10% reduction, caused by reductions across all sectors and in particular power generation. Despite this reduction, Ireland is currently exceeding its 2010 NOx ceiling of 65 kilotonnes by 10.4 kilotonnes in 2010 and 2.6 kilotonnes in 2011.

The road transport sector represents the largest source of NOx emissions, accounting for 55 % of total NOx emissions in 2011. Stricter EU standards for emissions from cars and heavy duty vehicles have delivered significant reductions in emissions from road transport in combination with the economic downturn in more recent years. However, while the benefits achieved by these more stringent standards achieved substantial decreases in NOx emissions, they did not deliver in full the anticipated emission reductions particularly in relation to diesel cars and goods vehicles. This failure and the large increase in traffic volumes and associated fuel use during a time of economic growth largely offset the emissions reductions. In the power generation sector, reductions have occurred as a result of measures such as extensive NOx emission control technology, supported by the EPA’s licensing and enforcement regime, and fuel-switching from oil to gas and renewable energy.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2):

Between 1990 and 2011, SO2 emissions decreased by 87%. Between 2010 and 2011 the decrease was 11%, mainly due to reductions in the industry and residential sectors reflecting  a continued switch from the use of fuel oil and solid fuels to natural gas and a lower winter heating demand in 2011.

Ireland’s 2010 national emission ceiling for SO2 is 42 kilotonnes. Emissions in 2009 were already below this 2010 ceiling. These data for 2011 show Ireland is 18.6 ktonnes below the 2010 limit.

The reduction in emissions since 1990 has been achieved as a result of a combination of measures, including switching fuel in energy-related sectors from high to low sulphur fuels such as natural gas, the fitting of SO2 abatement technology in power generation plant, the ban on bituminous coal in urban centres and a voluntary agreement to reduce the sulphur content of solid fuels which was further strengthened and given a statutory footing in 2011.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC):

Emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC)  decreased by 48% between 1990 and 2011. Between 2010 and 2011 the decrease was 3%, mainly due to reductions in the transport sector. The main sources of VOC emissions in Ireland are solvent use and transport.

Ireland’s 2010 national emission ceiling for VOC is 55 kilotonnes. Emissions in 2006 were already below the 2010 ceiling. These data for 2011 show Ireland to be 11.3 ktonnes below the 2010 limit.

VOC emission levels in the solvent use sector have remained relatively constant since 1990 even though drivers such as population, paint use, dry cleaning and industrial activity have increased. This reflects a reduction in the VOC content of products such as paints and the impact of EPA’s licencing and enforcement regime on relevant activities. VOC emissions from transport have reduced due to improved EU standards in cars and the more widespread use of vehicle exhaust catalytic converters.

Ammonia (NH3):

The primary sources of NH3 are the application of animal manures and nitrogenous fertilisers to soils. NH3 emissions from agricultural sources remain relatively unchanged between 1990 and 2011. Total NH3 emissions increased by 1.4% between 1990 and 2011, corresponding to the increase in NH3 emissions from 3-way catalysts in petrol vehicles.

Ireland’s national emission ceiling for NH3 is 116 kilotonnes to be achieved by 2010. Emissions in 2000 were already below the 2010 ceiling. These data for 2011 show Ireland to be 7.3 ktonnes below the 2010 limit. However, given the strong performance of the agriculture sector in line with the ambitious targets of Food Harvest 2020, limiting NH3 emissions to below the 2010 ceiling in the future could become an issue. Continued research on low emission landspreading techniques and other manure management strategies is required.

Further information: Niamh Hatchell/Emily Williamson, EPA Media Relations Office, 053 9170770 (24 hours) or media@epa.ie