Air quality Contents

6Tackling air pollution from agriculture

68.Emissions from agriculture affect local air quality and contribute towards climate change. Emissions have declined in recent years but are still produced in sufficient quantities to harm human health and the environment, both near to their point of production and further away in urban areas.

69.Ammonia is a key pollutant produced by agricultural activity. It affects human health and ecosystems at an estimated annual cost across the EU of 70-320 billion euros.109 UK emissions have declined by 28% since 1990 but the trend has been levelling off recently and predictions are of a 1% increase between 2010 and 2020.110 Agriculture was responsible for 82% of the UK’s ammonia emissions in 2012, of which fertilisers account for around a fifth with the pigs, poultry and cattle sectors contributing the remainder.111

70.Witnesses told us that there were a wide range of available technical options to reduce emissions such as improved systems for fertilizer application and manure handling and storage. For example, emissions could be reduced by avoiding the use of urea in fertilizer, by optimising the level of nitrogen in feed and by injecting slurries or ploughing manures into soils rapidly.

Regulation of emissions

71.The regulatory regime for agricultural emissions is patchy. Permissible levels of some pollutants are determined by various EU regulations, principally the National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) which sets binding emission ceilings for each Member State for four pollutants: sulphur dioxide, NOx, non-methane volatile organic compounds and ammonia.112 However, proposals to add methane emissions from agriculture in the recent revision of the NECD were first watered down in Brussels and ultimately vetoed by the Council of Ministers. Direct regulations on the source of emissions apply only to larger pig and poultry units covered by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), but ammonia emissions from most agricultural activity are not regulated.

72.Last year the EU proposed stronger NECD targets on ammonia to reduce UK levels by 21% by 2030.113 Witnesses took opposite views about the level of challenge this revised limit represented. For example, the IAQM considered it modest,114 and academic expert Professor Sutton told us that the goal would be “easy to meet” technically.115 In contrast, the NFU considered the target to be “at the limit of technical feasibility” and argued for a “more realistic and achievable” 2030 target which was “affordable to the agricultural sector, allows for growth but also protects the environment”.116 There are potential savings as well as costs from reducing ammonia emissions; an estimated 2.5 billion euros could be saved annually across the EU if the nitrogen lost to the air in those emissions was instead retained to fertilise soils.117

Use of best practice

73.Witnesses argued that the agricultural sector had taken effective action to tackle air pollution. The NFU noted that emissions had reduced in recent years, largely due to a fall in livestock numbers but also through increasing the efficiency with which nitrogen was used.118 The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) highlighted many initiatives by farmers in Northern Ireland to reduce emissions. Initiatives include the Manure Efficient Technology Scheme which has improved efficiency by 39% and the Nitrates Action Programme which has improved fertiliser spreading practices.119

74.However, some witnesses were critical of the agricultural sector’s progress to date. Academics lamented the sector’s lack of action compared to other sectors’ successes. Professor Williams noted that while NOx emissions from transport and power generation had reduced by 64% in recent years, agricultural emissions of ammonia had reduced by just 21%. He considered that there was “still a lot to do” to cut ammonia emissions.120 The NFU explained that farming emissions of ammonia, nitrous oxide and methane were harder to control compared to industrial sector emissions since biological processes were the source of most of the problem.121

75.Emissions may be failing to fall because many farmers do not use the best and latest technologies; Professor Sutton told us that farmers were using out-of-date technologies; some were using techniques from the 1950s.122 There are a wide range of programmes to support the use of modern techniques; the UFU referred for example to a scheme in Northern Ireland to help farmers invest in equipment to manage manure and slurries better but noted that the programme had been oversubscribed.123 The NFU and NFU Cymru referred to the Tried and Tested programme to support English and Welsh farmers in adopting better methods.124 However, some witnesses such as Professor Sutton considered that while academia had “a really good understanding” of the problem areas there was more limited information on how and where best practice approaches were being used by farmers.125

76.Witnesses had differing views on whether voluntary adoption of best practice was sufficient or whether further regulation was required. Professor Sutton recommended new legislation to remedy a lack of UK regulation on ammonia concentrations. He also referred to regulatory approaches in the Netherlands and Denmark which, despite farmers’ complaints, had changed the sector’s thinking and driven successful use of best practice. Farmers reaped the financial rewards of the better use of nutrients and these countries were now in a position to export their technologies.126 The NFU noted that both good practice and regulation had played a part in reducing emissions and expected farmers to continue to adopt good practice provided actions were both manageable and affordable.127 The NFU urged the Government to support research and development, data collection and monitoring and knowledge exchanges.128 The UFU argued strongly that the outcomes were best achieved through a focus on efficiency gains and improved margins rather than compulsory limits.129

77.The agricultural sector must step up action to reduce its contribution to national air pollution. At a time of financial pressure, support for farmers to adopt improved farming methods will be more effective than additional regulation. Decreased emissions are a win-win for the environment and for farmers, who can cut their bills by minimising nitrogen losses.

78.We recommend that Defra surveys by the end of 2016, and in partnership with the National Farmers’ Union, the extent to which the most effective air pollution approaches are being used on English farms. The Department should publish the data and report to this Committee on how it will use the information to better target, and if necessary increase, best practice support for farmers. This research will also facilitate constructive dialogue between the NFU and Defra on the technical feasibility of the current EU National Emissions Ceiling Directive targets for ammonia reduction.

79.Witnesses argued that financial incentives were likely to spur action; some recommended for example that existing payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) could be better used to tackle air pollution. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee considered that competition with other CAP priorities was hampering this approach although, as the current CAP scheme was new, its effectiveness in reducing emissions was not yet known.130 The NFU called for more support from Defra through agri-environment schemes, rural development funding and catchment-sensitive farming schemes.131 Professor Sutton considered Natural England’s work to develop Site Nitrogen Action Plans to be a “very useful start” in linking up with the CAP scheme but that budget constraints had limited its development such that it remained a demonstration tool.132

80.Relatively low-cost interventions can reduce emissions. With finances tight, farmers are more likely to take action if Defra can provide incentives for action. The Department must publish plans by September 2016 for using CAP funds more effectively to achieve air pollution objectives. In developing this plan, Defra should identify any EU constraints on directing funds in the optimum way and, where necessary, argue in Brussels for the removal of such barriers under the next CAP reforms.

Greenhouse gas emissions

81.The agricultural sector produces around 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions (both methane and nitrous oxide combined). Since 1990, emissions from this sector have declined due to a reduction in livestock numbers, changes in the management of manure and restrictions in the use of synthetic fertiliser. However, emissions are projected to level off in future decades. Furthermore, as the NFU notes, with other sectors making faster progress to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, even if agricultural emissions remain static they will form an increased proportion of emissions—potentially contributing a fifth of all UK emissions by 2050.133

82.The NFU told us that “addressing these longer term challenges will require a concerted effort and a willingness to consider new and novel approaches”. In 2011 the sector launched a Greenhouse Gas Action Plan to meet the climate change challenge without compromising domestic production. The Plan promotes a range of voluntary initiatives to help farmers reduce emissions whilst producing more food by using resources more efficiently.134


83. Limits on methane emissions were proposed for the revised EU NECD Directive in 2015 but were not in the event adopted. Although such limits were supported by environmental groups, some EU agriculture groups were concerned they would place unfair cost burdens on the sector.135 However, action can be taken to cut emissions. Academics in Nottingham as well as in countries such as the Netherlands and New Zealand, where emissions from livestock are a key greenhouse gas contributor, have looked at approaches such as modifying animal feed, using genetics and managing gut microbiology to reduce livestock emissions.136 McDonalds has run a partnership study to investigate the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the beef sector which concluded that reductions of around 11% could be achieved through best practice in feed use, pasture management and other approaches easily adoptable at farm level.137 However, some commentators and campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth have argued that policies are also needed to reduce meat eating in order to reduce emissions from livestock.138

84.The farming sector must step up action to cut methane emissions. The livestock sector in particular must do more if it wishes to resist arguments that reducing meat consumption is necessary to protect the environment. Whether through improved feed to cut methane emitted by cows or better manure spreading techniques, all farmers need to minimise their impact on climate change. Defra, learning from successful international approaches, should roll out by the end of 2016 a programme to support the spread of best practice to all farmers.

109 Professor Mark Sutton (AQU20)

110 Q23

111 Q8

112 EU national emission ceilings are upper limits for total emissions of certain air pollutants that Member States will have to respect by a certain date, to push down background concentrations and limit transboundary air pollution. Existing ceilings are in place for 2010, as set out in the UNECE Gothenburg Protocol in 1999 and the EU National Emission Ceilings Directive, NECD (2001/81/EC). New ceilings (which are called national emission reduction commitments) for 2020 were agreed recently in a revised Gothenburg Protocol, and are proposed for 2020 and 2030 in a revised NECD as part of the clean air policy package.

113 Professor Mark Sutton (AQU20) The 21% figure is a reduction from 2005 levels and represents a 14% UK reduction between 2010 and 2030.

114 Institute of Air Quality Management (AQU14)

115 Professor Mark Sutton (AQU20)

116 National Farmers’ Union and NFU Cymru (AQU49)

117 Professor Mark Sutton (AQU20)

118 National Farmers’ Union and NFU Cymru (AQU49)

119 Ulster Farmers’ Union (AQU47)

120 Q23

121 National Farmers’ Union and NFU Cymru (AQU49)

122 Professor Mark Sutton (AQU19)

123 Ulster Farmers’ Union (AQU47)

124 National Farmers’ Union (AQU49)

125 Q10

126 Q23

127 National Farmers’ Union and NFU Cymru (AQU49)

128 As above and Q272

129 Ulster Farmers’ Union (AQU47)

130 Joint Nature Conservation Committee (AQU12) para 4.8

131 National Farmers’ Union and NFU Cymru (AQU49) CAP pillar 2 funds may be used to support such schemes

132 Professor Mark Sutton (AQU19)

133 National Farmers’ Union and NFU Cymru (AQU49)

134 As above

135 EU National Emissions Ceilings short of the mark”, Air Quality News, 16 December 2015

136 European research media centre, The case for low methane-emitting cattle, 10 January 2014

137 McDonald’s, Beef Carbon Report, 2016

138 Cut meat consumption or lose the fight on climate change”, Friends of the Earth blog, 26 November 2013

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25 April 2016