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Acid Rain: Effect On Woodlands

Volume 445: debated on Tuesday 22 November 1983

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3 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps have been taken to assess the present and potential damage to our woodlands caused by "acid rain".

My Lords, there is no evidence at present that woodlands in the United Kingdom are being adversely affected by acid deposition but the Government are keeping a close watch on the situation. There is regular monitoring of the health and growth of many tree species by the Forestry Commission. The potential effects of acid deposition on woodlands are being investigated in a number of Government funded research projects by the Forestry Commission, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Department of the Environment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his informative and reassuring reply to all woodland owners in this country, either state or private. Has his attention been drawn to the article in Saturday's Financial Times reviewing the German woodlands, in which it states that it was like visiting a graveyard? Has his attention been drawn to the report of the Swedish Forestry Association to the effect that there is serious damage to the woodlands of Sweden and that they attribute this to some extent to aerial pollution from the United Kingdom? Has the noble Lord's attention also been drawn to the fact that the Bonn Government have now instructed all new power stations to install equipment to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions because of their serious effect on German woodlands? Will the noble Lord keep an eye on the potential danger to British woodlands in this respect?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for the topicality of his Question. I have not seen the Financial Times article to which he referred, but I have seen the other reports which he also mentioned. Of course I am fully aware of the situation in Germany at present. But it is generally accepted that acid precipitation is a factor, and only a factor, in the acidification of fresh waters and that there is little evidence so far of damage to trees by acid rain. This, as I am sure the noble Lord and the House will well know, was accepted by experts at the Stockholm Conference in 1982. Beyond that I am the first to agree that not everything in the garden is beautiful and the Government, as I said in my original Answer, will keep close watch on the situation in this country.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether there is any truth in the report that the area of Scotland worst affected by acid rain is the South West, and that the prevailing winds there are westerly, which tends to contradict the Swedish allegations?

:Yes, my Lords, in the South West of Scotland the prevailing winds are westerly, but it is not necessarily the wind-borne deposition that is in question; it is quite possible that the rain could come from the United States or wherever. The important point is that it is not the direct rainfall that is in question, but the effect of the rainfall on the soil.

My Lords, would the Minister not be prepared to ask the Forestry Commission, who are very knowledgable on these matters, to submit reports from time to time when they feel that there is an increasing danger of acid rain on the forests of our country?

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, the Forestry Commission are already undertaking a study of this matter. When it is completed they will of course inform the department, and I have no doubt that there will be an opportunity to report the results of that study to the House.

My Lords, we are all very sensitive about the question of trees since the Dutch elm disaster of the last 25 years. We want to take the matter seriously but we must not be overwhelmed by the various articles and so on. I was in Bavaria a year ago, and I wonder whether the Minister is aware that in that country I was tackled by a lady who blamed this country for the acid rain in Bavaria. I asked to see the forests that were affected but they could not identify them. However, that is not to say that we should not be careful. I know that the commission are doing a great deal to keep an eye on the situation. but we must keep the matter in perspective.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord from the Opposition Front Bench. Of course we must keep the matter in perspective. One of the interesting facts that I have come to learn in studying this question is that although the United Kingdom emissions of sulphur dioxide have fallen by about 30 per cent. since 1970, no corresponding reduction has been observed in the acidity of rainfall.

My Lords, are the Government aware that the situation is extremely grave, because once you can see evidence of damage from acid rain on trees it is already too late to save the trees? Are the Government also aware that one of the problems in demanding damages for acid rain is in trying to prove whose acid is in the rain that is doing the damage?

My Lords, as regards the last point raised in the noble Lady's supplementary, I of course agree that it is impossible to identify which particular country's acid is in the deposition that affects a particular area of the country. But as I said a short time ago, there is no evidence that acid rain perse affects the trees. Evidence is beginning to emerge that the effect is soil borne and it is that matter that is being studied so closely.

My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that, apart from trees, acid rain is very harmful to aquatic freshwater life? Is my noble friend aware that, on my land in the West of Scotland I have a Norwegian firm called Norsk who have a large salmon breeding establishment? Every month they monitor the water, and the acidity is increasing. Is my noble friend aware that I understand that in Dumfriesshire, the Galloway country, there are several lochs where all life has disappeared? Is he further aware that in Sweden which has 90,000 lakes, 30,000 are now completely dead due to acid rain?

My Lords, one of the factors of acid rain is that it is particularly damaging in certain geological areas where the soil is already acid—in other words, it will make more acid. However, if the acid rain falls, for example, on the South Downs, the natural alkalinity of the soil will neutralise the effect of the rain. So it is particularly serious in those parts of the country which my noble friend knows so well. I am well aware that in these particular sensitive areas it has led to fish losses. It is one thing to establish the fact that it has happened; it is quite another thing to estabish how best to deal with it. I am advised that liming, for example—which to my layman's mind would seem to be the logical answer—in fact does not work.

My Lords, could we have an example of this acid rain? Perhaps some could be put in the Library so that we know what we are talking about.

My Lords, I do not think that that would be appropriate. Perhaps aluminium rain from your Lordships' ceiling might have a more devastating effect.

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the number of questions and expressions of concern in your Lordships' House this afternoon on this subject shows that there is no room whatever for complacency; that the relatively low level of recorded damage attributable to acid rain in this country is probably due to insufficient research, and that there really is an urgency to put this research in hand? Would the noble Lord also agree that the five-year programme of research which I understand is being initiated by the Royal Society does not indicate a state of urgency? Will the noble Lord accept that I am very glad to hear what he has said about the Government's initiative in inquiring into this matter to establish the facts as regards the damage which has possibly been created by the CEGB and the NCB?

My Lords. if I have been complacent in my answers today I can only apologise. I was at pains—but perhaps I failed—to point out that the Government do view this matter with great seriousness and have asked for a report, which is partially Government-funded, from the Warren Springs Laboratory. Moreover, we are, of course, fully committed to working with other signatories in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Long-range Trans-Boundary Air Pollution in tackling this problem. But, as I said earlier, it is one thing to identify the problem and to get the exact scientific reasons for it: it is, regretfully, quite another thing then to decide, on further scientific evidence, on how you cope with the problem. This, of course, will also have to be studied. Preliminary studies are already taking place towards this end.