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Acid Rain

Volume 448: debated on Monday 20 February 1984

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2.47 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 are the latest reports concerning the problem of acid rain, and whether any plans are in hand to deal with the situation.

My Lords, the most recently published report is that of the Review Group on Acid Deposition in the United Kingdom, copies of which have been placed in the Library. A number of other scientific reports are expected in the next few months, including that of the Royal Society's discussion meeting last autumn on the ecological effects of deposited sulphur and nitrogen compounds. The Government plan to expand further their research on acid deposition.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Minister for that reply, but may I press upon him as a matter of urgency that when the Government do have some proposals they put them into effect as quickly as possible, bearing in mind the widespread ravages that acid rain is causing not only to this country but to some of our friendly neighbours in Europe?

My Lords, to use a rather unparliamentary expression, I can confirm that the Government will not hang about on this matter. However, I should say that the scientific links between sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide have not yet been proved to be the cause of the devastating effects that we are seeing in some places in Europe on the growth of trees and the absence of fish in some inland waters.

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that this is a very complex matter where surprising contradictions arise, such as neighbouring lochs being unequally subject to acidity and one island in the Indian Ocean being worse off than anywhere else in the world?

Yes, my Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend, which bears out what I have just said about scientific evidence so far being unclear.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that two of the very clear recommendations in the report to which he referred are being taken seriously? One is the need for more research and the other is the need for long-term funding in order to make more and better research available. Can he confirm that that has been discussed and that there is clear sympathy from the Government towards this view?

Yes, my Lords, there is certainly sympathy. This year we spent £1 million on research into the effects and linkage of acid deposition. I confirm that next year it will be considerably more, but I do not yet have the figures available.

My Lords, in the meantime, could everything possible be done to discourage factories and other premises from expelling sulphur into the air? There is no need for a great deal of research to establish the undesirability of such discharges.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord will know that since 1972 there has been a 30 per cent. reduction in the amount of sulphur dioxide put into the atmosphere. Regrettably, this has not resulted in a reduction in the effects of so-called acid rain. It is unclear exactly what is the cause. Therefore, it would be premature to fix such things as scrubbers to our big factory chimneys, which would be very expensive and which, as far as we can see at the moment, would not necessarily have the desired effect.

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister recall that about a year ago the same Question was put down on the Order Paper in my name, and that at that time we were given the same assurances as we have been given today? Will he take into account the experience of Scandinavia and Germany, which have conducted similar research into the subject? Indeed, the Scandinavians blame the British for the pollution of the Scandinavian woodlands. Will the noble Lord expedite the research into this and take account of the fact that certain European countries have taken positive steps to limit the emissions from power stations of sulphur dioxide?

Yes, my Lords, I am well aware that the Scandinavian countries have undertaken research, but they are no nearer a solution than we are in this country. I have already told the House that we plan an increase in funding for research and that we take this matter extremely seriously.

My Lords, are the Government aware that some research being carried on in this country at the moment not only does not prove that there is a linkage between acid rain and the kind of damage imputed to it but suggests strongly that the causes of the damage are quite different?

Yes, my Lords; I have read papers from various sources giving a different series of views. This is exactly the problem.

My Lords, can the Minister tell me whether, as this acid rain falls upon the reservoirs from which we get our drinking water, there is danger in our continuing to drink water?

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister will be aware that there have been responsible programmes on television indicating the appalling damage that has been done by acid rain to vast areas of beauty, not only in this country but on the continent as well. It is undeniable that we as a nation are the biggest contributor to this. When the Government decide on some action, will the noble Lord press them to act swiftly because of the damage that is being inflicted?

My Lords, I can only repeat the answer that I gave the noble Lord in response to his first supplementary question.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Central Electricity Generating Board, in its laboratories in Surrey, is eager to meet any Members of this House or of the other place to tell them what it is doing about exploring the sources of acid rain, and that the results so far are very confusing?

No, my Lords, I was not aware of that; and I am very grateful to my noble friend for the information.