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expert reaction to Defra’s new stats on emissions of air pollutants

DEFRA has published their annual publication covering the emissions of some important air pollutants.


Prof. Anthony Frew, Professor of Allergy & Respiratory Medicine, Royal Sussex County Hospital, said:

“These latest data from DEFRA are encouraging and show a continuing improvement in UK air quality.  The drop in nitrogen oxide measurements is particularly striking and brings us well under the EU/Gothenburg ceiling.  These improvements are likely to be due to multiple efforts to reduce emissions from sources including motor transport – bearing in mind that only 35% of NOx and 14% of PM come from traffic.”


Prof. Mark Sutton, Environmental Physicist, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said:

“Overall, the statistics show a positive picture of reducing air pollution emissions – showing the success of UK policies in meeting our international commitments.

“The exception is the increase in ammonia emissions, which Defra attribute to larger dairy herds and increased use of fertilizers.  As Defra note, this increase has been happening since 2013.  Projected forward from the 2016 statistics published, it means that the UK is probably already failing to meet its international commitments to the UNECE and EU on ammonia emissions.  If emissions continue to increase at the present rate, the UK will be 20% above its committed emission ceiling for 2020.

“The increase in dairy herd is also seen in other parts of Europe, and is linked to the end of EU Milk Quotas in 2015.  The trend in emissions is therefore no surprise as the UK has very little by way of policies to reduce ammonia emissions from farming.  For example, the use of methods to reduce ammonia emission from manure spreading has been mandatory in a few parts of Europe for over 20 years.  As car fleets have been adapted for low-emissions, ammonia has become a Cinderella issue that has been long neglected.

“This report has a rather poignant timing: it was exactly a year ago today that the German government committed to reduce ammonia emissions from urea fertiliser application.  From February 2020, German farmers using urea fertiliser will be required to use compounds that reduce ammonia emissions (‘urease inhibitors’) or to incorporate urea fertiliser into the soil immediately after application.”

Reference to the German Fertilizer Regulations:

Bundesrat (2017) (15 February 2017) Drucksache 148/17 Verordnung des Bundesministeriums für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft. Verordnung zur Neuordnung der guten fachlichen Praxis beim Düngen.

See Section 6 (2), which translates as follows:

“From 1 February 2020, urea fertilizer may only be applied if a urease inhibitor has been added, or if it is incorporated immediately, i.e. no later than four hours after application.”




Declared interests

Prof. Mark Sutton: “Co-chair the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen (TFRN) of the UNECE Air Convention, which works to reduce air pollution.  The role is to provide scientific and technical support and associated insights to aid policy development.  Until 2014 this role was funded by Defra.

My team at CEH contributes with Riccardo-AEA to the preparation of the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory, funded by Defra.  This means that I am not quibbling here about the calculations.

Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative, which is a global network of scientists addressing the nitrogen cycle.

I am funded by the Global Environment Facility, through UN Environment to lead development of the “International Nitrogen Management System”, a global science support system for international nitrogen policy.”


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