• English

Reducing air pollution from agriculture in the UNECE region to save lives and biodiversity

Recent studies have shown that emissions from agriculture are a major cause of mortality from air pollution in Europe. While agriculture does not immediately come to mind when thinking about sources of air pollutants, agricultural emissions, namely ammonia or NH3, are the single largest contributor to the formation of fine particulate matter (essentially, dust). Fine particulate matter is a major source of harmful air pollution, as it can penetrate deep into the respiratory system. According to the World Health Organization, human exposure to this type of air pollution is causing about 600,000 deaths annually in the UNECE region.

The problem is indeed not a small one: in some European countries, over 40 per cent of air pollution-related mortality can be attributed to emissions from agriculture. Clearly, reducing ammonia emissions, mainly coming from manure produced by livestock and from mineral nitrogen fertilizers, will lead to lower concentrations of fine particulate matter, which will in turn greatly benefit our health.

Reducing ammonia emissions will also benefit the environment, as it is a significant source of acidification and excess nutrient loading, causing loss of biodiversity in many of the most vulnerable ecosystems. Excess nitrogen loads also affect water quality and can lead to aquifers contaminated with nitrate and impure drinking water. Also, interactions with nitrogen and its transformations have an impact on the greenhouse gas balance with consequences for climate change. Both the environmental and the health effects of air pollution from agriculture call for stronger action to reduce emissions.

This week (31 May to 2 June 2017) in Geneva an international group of experts discussed good practices and challenges in reducing air pollution from agriculture during a special session dedicated to this issue as part of the 55th meeting of the Working Group on Strategies and Review under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. Parties to the Convention have already set emission reduction targets for ammonia and achieved a 30 per cent decrease in emissions since 1990 — but more needs to be done.

To help countries reduce ammonia emissions from agriculture, an “Ammonia Framework Code” has been established, providing guidance for countries to establish their own national codes. At the special session on agriculture and air pollution, Parties discussed their experiences in managing emissions from agriculture at the national level. They also exchanged experiences with participants from other regions providing a wider perspective on ammonia management.

Parties agreed that further action and an integrated approach to nitrogen management across various sectors to achieve benefits for air, water, health and climate are needed.