Slight decline in Germany's air pollutant emissions

Level of ammonia emissions from agriculture remains too high

Dicker, schwarzer Rauch kommt aus dem Schornstein.Click to enlarge
Germany issues annual reports of air pollutant emissions.
Source: jelwolf / Fotolia.com

The trend in Germany's air pollutant emissions continues on a slight decline, says the annual report by the German Environment Agency (UBA) submitted to the European Commission. In 2018, sulphur (SO2) compounds decreased by nearly 4.2 percent compared to 2017, bringing levels to 95 percent below 1990. Nitrogen oxide emissions fell by 59 percent between 1990 and 2018, yet air pollution remains too high in many German cities. Direct particulate emissions shrunk by 55 percent in the same time period. Emissions of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POP) in 2018 remained mostly unchanged at very low levels. Ammonia emissions declined only slightly, by 16 percent (baseline 1990), stagnating at the same low level for the past ten years.

UBA's President Dirk Messner is therefore calling for additional measures, saying, "Ammonia emissions continue to be too high. We need far-reaching reforms, in particular in agricultural practices. We need to improve coverage of slurry tanks, optimize feed and adapt mineral fertiliser application practices. Should Germany be unable to mitigate its emissions to the necessary extent, we will have to consider agricultural structural measures, such as cutting livestock numbers."

Ammonia is formed in agriculture from the decomposition of organic matter and livestock manure. It is a precursor substance which is significant in the formation of so-called secondary particulates and plays a major role in background concentrations of particulates. High concentrations in the vicinity of large animal installations can do direct damage to vegetation. EU requirements stipulate that Germany must mitigate its annual ammonia emissions by at least 5 percent compared to 2005. However, actual emissions are quite often above this historical level and nowhere near achieving the target.

Emissions of harmful heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury are well below 1990 levels, having achieved reductions of 89, 58 and 76 percent respectively, and despite a virtual standstill in mitigation in recent years. The trend in persistent organic compounds is similar: mitigation ranges from 95 percent for dioxins and 53 percent for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). PAH are formed for example as a result of incomplete firing of wood or coal.

The great successes in air pollution control in the 1990s were gained after the reunification of Germany. Today, there is hardly any decline for many of the air pollutants. However, a number of changes and new regulations that have already been adopted will contribute to the further reduction of air pollutant emissions by 2030. They include the 44th Federal Ordinance on Immission Control for the reduction of emissions from medium-sized combustion plants, the update of the Technical Instructions on Air Quality, new requirements for exhaust gas regulation of cars within the framework of the Real Driving Emissions (RDE) procedure, and additional measures in industrial installations and fertiliser law. The coal phase-out by 2038 will also improve air quality.

UBA updates its air pollutant emissions calculations on an annual basis. This is due to reporting requirements laid down by the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air, which has addressed the problem of how the international community must tackle transboundary air pollution since 1979.

Umweltbundesamt Hauptsitz

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