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Clean Air Strategy: progress for wildlife and people on ammonia - the ‘poor cousin’ of air pollution

Twelve nature charities [1], including Plantlife, RSPB and Friends of the Earth, have welcomed new regulations to cut ammonia emissions announced in the Clean Air Strategy today.

14 January 2019

This move is vital and long overdue given the ravaging effect ammonia has on wild plants, woodlands and meadows, and the wildlife that rely on them, and the disastrous impact of ammonia on people’s health. Cutting ammonia emissions by 50% could prevent the equivalent of around an estimated 250,000 premature deaths globally each year.

Ammonia is the ‘poor cousin’ of air pollution – flying below the radar of regulators until now, despite its destructive impacts, and the rising levels of this toxin in the air we breathe. Recent official data shows that ammonia emissions in England increased for the third year in a row in 2016, in stark contrast with all other major pollutants. Ammonia emissions are higher than at any time since 2005, while levels of other pollutants are largely unchanged or decreasing.

Ammonia plays a major role in creating particulate matter, one of the biggest threats to people’s health from air pollution, with emissions from farms harming the health of people hundreds of miles away. An estimated 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year are attributed to air pollution, with more than 40 towns and cities at, or exceeding, limits set by the World Health Organization. There is also a wealth of scientific evidence showing that nitrogen pollution is one of the greatest threats to wild plants around the world including evidence from the charities to the Clean Air Strategy consultation on the decimation of plants by ammonia.

Jenny Hawley, Senior Policy Officer at Plantlife, said: ‘Air pollution from farming has been neglected by policymakers for too long – with year-on-year increases in ammonia emissions. Voluntary measures haven’t worked, so the commitments to new regulation are a positive step forward. But the devil will be in the detail and the Clean Air Strategy must be translated into legislation without delay if it is to protect some of our rarest plants, lichens and fungi from extinction.

‘Runaway ammonia emissions are contributing to unnaturally nutrient-rich soil conditions that are having a chilling impact on plant diversity. Many rare and threatened wildflowers like harebell and bird's-foot trefoil are being crowded out of the countryside by a marauding gang of 'nitrogen guzzlers' such as brambles and stinging nettles. The knock-on effects of habitats becoming nitrogen-rich ‘badlands’ can be lethal, for example the marsh fritillary butterfly feeds almost exclusively on Devil's-bit scabious, a plant that simply cannot survive in these conditions.’

Hannah Freeman, Senior Government Affairs Officer at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, said: ‘Air pollution literally doesn’t exist in a bubble. Ammonia in the air over our farmlands dissolves into our wetlands and waterways and wreaks havoc on delicate aquatic ecosystems. The proposed measures are a step forward, but what we really want is government policy that supports farmers to be true stewards, holistically managing our air, soil and water together.’

Thomas Lancaster, Acting Head of Land Use Policy at the RSPB said: ‘The Government’s proposals for reducing ammonia emissions from farming are a significant step forward, and recognise the importance of effective regulation in protecting the environment and public health. We now need Government to set out a much more comprehensive and ambitious package of regulatory reforms for farming, to secure the safeguards that both progressive farmers and the environment so desperately need.’

Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Lead at the Woodland Trust said: ‘Nitrogen deposition and increasing concentrations of ammonia are severely damaging our ancient woodlands. It is imperative we integrate on-farm measures for air quality, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions to protect these precious, irreplaceable habitats. Working with nature can have significant beneficial impacts. Planting new trees downwind of a poultry house fan outlet, for example, can be very effective at capturing both gaseous and particulate pollutants as well as providing shade and water management- a win-win for farm efficiency, reducing input costs and protecting the environment. Any new land management scheme must include effective enforcement as well as support for the development of solutions.’

Richard Young, Policy Director at the Sustainable Food Trust said: ‘The Sustainable Food Trust welcomes the Government’s Clean Air Strategy, but feels that greater action is needed to address the issue of ammonia, a major component of air pollution, which mostly comes from the agricultural sector. In particular, the overuse of nitrogen fertiliser must be recognised as the main cause of ammonia, and this needs to be urgently addressed.

‘In order to make real headway in tackling the air pollution crisis, we need a fundamental change in the way we produce food, moving away from heavy reliance on nitrogen fertiliser towards mixed farm systems which utilise forage legumes, such as clover, to rebuild the soil’s natural nitrogen levels. We should also focus on re-localising food production and consumption as much as possible to reduce diesel emissions associated with transport. Future ‘public goods’ funding should be used to help shift farming systems in this more sustainable direction.’

Farming is the main source of ammonia emissions, stemming from the storage and spreading on fields of manure, slurry, digestate and artificial fertilisers. The UK Government has relied on restricting farming practices in certain areas (nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs)) to tackle pollution of rivers and streams from fertilisers. However, the charities argue that Government should use post-Brexit agriculture policy and its proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme to reform NVZs, prevent water and air pollution more effectively and better protect our environment.

Under the new measures announced today, farmers will have to use low-emissions technology and facilities to collect, store and spread animal wastes and fertilisers on their fields. Many dairy and intensive beef farms will have to apply for an environmental permit, as is already the case for the largest poultry and pig farms. The strategy also tackles emissions from anaerobic digesters which have risen significantly as the technology has become more popular.

The charities support these measures but warned that their effectiveness will depend on the detail which still has to be developed. They called on the Government to bring forward detailed proposals in the coming months and to set earlier deadlines for reducing ammonia emissions from the most polluting sources. While the new target to reduce by 17% the area of wildlife habitat affected by nitrogen deposition by 2030 is welcome, it does not go far enough and the Strategy does not take forward the specific measures recommended by the charities to protect and restore wildlife.

There are many other welcome moves in the Clean Air Strategy from Government, however the organisations are warning that:
  • more still needs to be done to tackle pollution from cars and other vehicles in particular, as plans on the main source of illegal air pollution in our towns and cities fall short. For example, this should include a network of clean air zones and support for people and businesses to move to cleaner forms of transport
  • we need new clean air laws that enshrine people’s right to breathe clean air and stricter legal limits based on World Health Organisation guidelines in UK law to drive greater ambition on this issue
  • The Clean Air Strategy is being developed in response to legally binding emission reduction targets from the EU. After Brexit, it is essential the promised new UK environment watchdog is strong, well-resourced and independent to ensure the government complies with its legal duty to protect the health of people and the environment

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

1. Wildlife and Countryside Link is the biggest coalition of wildlife and environment charities in England www.wcl.org.uk. The charities supporting these calls are: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of the Earth, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Plantlife, RSPB, Sustainable Food Trust, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Woodland Trust. Sustain (a partner alliance of over 100 food and farming organisations) also supports these calls.

FACTFILE:

  • A compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, ammonia is part of the nitrogen cycle along with nitrogen oxides, nitrates and nitrous oxide (a powerful greenhouse gas) in the air, soils and water.
  • Nitrogen emissions from ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen oxides build up in the atmosphere from transport, farming, industry, waste management and other sources. This excess nitrogen is deposited into nature, making the environment too fertile, acidic and toxic for many wildflowers, lichens and other plants and fungi to survive. These more sensitive species are pushed out by nitrogen-loving plants such as nettles, brambles and cow parsley. In extreme cases, concentrated ammonia emissions (such as from intensive chicken farms) are causing direct damage by bleaching vegetation and killing plants and lichens.
  • In November 2018, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee called for a joined-up approach to nitrogen pollution after Brexit and more resources for the Environment Agency to make sure farmers comply with regulations.