Measuring agriculture’s contribution to air pollution in the EU

Agriculture is often cited as the major contributor to air pollution and climate change, with livestock farming, particularly methane emissions from cattle, being the main emitter. However, it is important to note that articles on this topic often focus on a single pollutant or economic sector, which can make it challenging to form a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the full situation. But what do the facts show? This article identifies the main air pollutants, their respective contribution to total emissions and the sources from which they originate. Data show that agriculture is the fifth in terms of GHG emissions and second in terms of air pollutant emissions in the EU.

The two main sources of air emissions are greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are responsible for climate change, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and F-gases (hydrofluorocarbons), and the main air pollutants that damage human health, the environment and biodiversity, which include as sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), ammonia (NH3), carbon monoxide (CO), as well as fine particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), total suspended particulates (TSB) and black carbon (BC), together with heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants.

Greenhouse gasses

Based on the data of European Environmental Agency (EEA), in terms of source and sink categories, the energy sector1 was the largest greenhouse gas emitter (82.2%), while agriculture accounted for 11.7% and industrial processes2 for 9.8% for total GHG emissions in 2021 in the EU-27. In addition to the 3.4% emissions from the waste source category, the carbon-absorbing forest and land use sector reduced total GHG emissions by 7.1% (Figure 1). It is important to note that the global warming potential of each greenhouse gas varies. Therefore, to facilitate comparison, the unit of measurement CO2 equivalent (CO2eq) is used. This standardises the climate effect of various greenhouse gases by taking into account their global warming potential and how long they remain in the atmosphere.

1 Energy sector comprises of fuel combustion activities (in energy industry, manufacturing (including food), construction and transport), fugitive emissions from fuels and CO2 transport and storage.

2 Mineral, chemical, metal and electronics industries and other sectors

Figure 1: Sources and sink categories of EU GHG emissions, 2021 (in CO2 equivalent) | ES: Energy Sector; IPPU: Industrial processes and product use | Source: prepared by AKI Agricultural Economics Directorate, based on EU CRF, 2023

Of the GHGs emitted by agriculture, nitrous oxide and methane are the most significant pollutants. EU agriculture accounted for 73.8% of total N2O emissions which represented only 4.2% of total GHG emissions expressed in CO2 equivalent. It predominantly comes from inorganic nitrogen fertilisation of soils, but recycling of stalk residues left on the soil and manure management can also be considered as N2O sources. Methane emissions are mainly the result of cattle and sheep enteric fermentation and from cattle and pig manure storages. In 2021, the EU's agricultural sector contributed to 56.0% of total CH4 emissions, equating to 7.2% of all GHG emissions (Figure 2). Direct CO2 emissions from agriculture were responsible for only 0.3% of total GHG emissions, primarily due to the use of urea fertilisers.

Figure 2: EU Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 2021 (3,238 million tonnes CO2eq) | Source: prepared by AKI Agricultural Economics Directorate, based on EU CRF, 2023

Air pollutants

The primary source of emissions for major air pollutants (SO2, NOx, NMVOC, NH3 and CO) as well as particulate matter (PM), similarly to GHG emissions, was the energy sector (64.0%) in the EU-27 during 2021, whilst agriculture was responsible for 16.3% of the emissions (Figure 3). For agriculture, ammonia is the main contributor, but NMVOC, NOX, TSP and PM10 emissions are also significant. 93.9% of the EU’s NH3 emissions come from agriculture, which represents 7.5% of all air pollutants. NH3 is mainly released from livestock manure in stables and manure storage facilities. However, it is worth noting that a significant amount of NH3 is also emitted from inorganic nitrogen fertilisers used in arable crops and from the application of manure (Figure 4). Besides the high concentration of this gas, which is harmful to the lungs and serves as a precursor to secondary particulate matter (PM2.5), it has the potential to cause damage to both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems through acidification and eutrophication.

Figure 3: Sources of EU emissions for major air pollutants, 2021 | ES: Energy Sector; IPPU: Industrial processes and product use | Source: prepared by AKI Agricultural Economics Directorate, based on NEC NFR19 2023

As regards NMVOC, agriculture accounted for 23.9% in 2021 and the same applies to 13.3% of NOX. Their share in total amount of air pollutants was only 3.8% and 1.8% respectively. While NMVOC are predominantly emitted through livestock farming and manure management, NOX is emitted when inorganic nitrogen fertilisers and animal manure are applied to soils. According to the data, agriculture is responsible for 25.9% of TSP and 15.4% of PM10 particulate matters, which corresponds to 2.1% and 0.7% of the total air pollutant emissions, respectively. These two pollutants arise during the storage, handling and transportation of agricultural products. TSP is also generated through the management of pig and laying hen manure.

Figure 4. EU emissions of major air pollutants and particulate matter, 2021 (41,118 thousand tonnes) | Source: prepared by AKI Agricultural Economics Directorate, based on NEC NFR19 2023


Agriculture accounted for 12% of total GHG emissions and 16% of total air pollutant emissions in the EU in 2021. In the ranking of the 13 source and sink categories, agriculture is the fifth in terms of GHG emissions and second in terms of air pollutant emissions, alongside transport. As regards GHG emissions, it is important to note that CO2, which is the primary source of long-term warming, is the dominant pollutant in sectors that emit more GHGs than agriculture. In agriculture, however, methane and nitrous oxide are the dominant pollutants.

Of the air pollutants, ammonia is the one that stands out among agricultural emissions. It is the most abundant alkaline gas in the atmosphere and a major component of total reactive nitrogen. NH3 emissions contribute to environmental issues such as acidification, nitrification, and eutrophication. Additionally, it is a precursor to atmospheric particulate matter, which has public health impacts. Reducing anthropogenic ammonia emissions is a priority of both EU legislation and international air quality legislation (Behera et al, 2013.)

What does this mean?

Air pollution and climate change are interconnected issues that should be addressed together, with a focus on protecting public health. Short-lived climate pollutants should be addressed to achieve dual benefits of improving air quality and health while mitigating climate change globally. To effectively tackle air pollution, it should first be measured and monitored, and the main sources of air pollution identified. Reducing air pollution may require physical investments, policy reforms, or both. It is important to consider the context when selecting interventions, as not every intervention is suitable for every situation. It is crucial to choose interventions that have a net benefit, particularly in terms of improved health (The World Bank, 2022; UNECE, 2023).

In a future article we will introduce EU regulations for reducing and reporting on air pollutants and GHG emissions, a measurement approach, and dsm-firmenich’s Sustell™, a tool specifically tailored for livestock farms to address these challenges.


  1. 1. Behera S.N., Sharma M., Aneja V.P., Balasubramanian R. (2013): Ammonia in the atmosphere: a review on emission sources, atmospheric chemistry and deposition on terrestrial bodies. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. Vol. 20., p. 8092-8131. (2013).
  2. Moor, D. (2020): Are All Air Pollutants the Same? ACT News, Feb 6. 2020.
  3. The World Bank (2022): What You Need to Know About Climate Change and Air Pollution.
  4. UNECE (2023): Improving air quality while fighting climate change.
  5. UNECE (2015): Methane and Ammonia Air Pollution.

Published on

05 March 2024


  • Livestock Emissions
  • Environmental Footprint
  • Sustainability

About the Authors

Dr. Ildiko Edit Tikasz - Director’s advisor at the Institute of Agricultural Economics (AKI) in Hungary

Her main focus areas include protein crops, with a specific focus on soybean production and its economic aspects; animal nutrition and husbandry, with a particular emphasis on sustainability, including the reduction of greenhouse gases and air pollutants; and the evaluation of the suitability of smart technologies in pig and poultry production in Hungary. These endeavours aim to provide support for decision-making processes in relevant policy areas and enhance the awareness of market participants.

Edina Varga - Expert at the Institute of Agricultural Economics (AKI) in Hungary

Her main focus areas include national-level feed monitoring, assessing the environmental aspects of farm livestock feeding to support policy-making and the feed industry, and promoting the adoption of sustainable production systems, with a particular emphasis on transferring knowledge related to environmental pollution mitigating technologies.

Dr. Richárd Márkus - Customer Excellence Manager, Animal Nutrition and Health at dsm-firmenich

Richard received his PhD in Animal feeding from the University of West Hungary, Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences. He joined dsm-firmenich in 2020.
He contributed to the business by working on digital strategy and by introducing Precision Service tools in Central Eastern European markets.


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