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Chlorofluorocarbons: Control

Volume 489: debated on Wednesday 21 October 1987

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3.3 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 whether they will not amend the answer they gave on 15th July (col. 1034) as to their policy on reducing the production of chlorofluorocarbons.

My Lords, a protocol to control production and consumption of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons was agreed in Montreal on 16th September. The United Kingdom signed it that day, together with the European Community, most member states and some 16 other countries. Consumption of CFCs will be halved before the turn of the century and the halons are to be held at 1986 levels. This is a major environmental agreement in the negotiations of which the United Kingdom played a full part.

My Lords, I welcome the agreement. But does the Minister recall courteously writing to me on 5th August following that question saying that the Government's policy was broadly in line with that of the Commission which at that time believed in a freeze in the production of CFCs, a reduction of 20 per cent. some years later and a vague promise in the future? If the Government have now signed an agreement to reduce the production of CFCs by 50 per cent., which I understand was agreed in Montreal, does that indicate that the Government have now learnt that the production and emission of CFCs is a grave danger to the future of the human race?

My Lords, I think there is no question but that from the available evidence the depletion of the ozone layer has a strong involvement of CFCs. That is why the agreement of the Montreal protocol is so important.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain to the House what are these chlorofluorocarbons and who produces them?

My Lords, these are chemicals which contain chlorine atoms, and halons, which are generally found in fire extinguishers, containing what is called bromine. They are very stable in the lower atmosphere but once in the upper atmosphere they are broken down by the strong sunlight. The release of chlorine and bromine can then destroy the ozone. If the ozone layer is depleted its ability to filter out harmful ultra-violet light from the sun's rays is reduced and that may be extremely dangerous in regard to cancer of the skin.

In answer to my noble friend's second question, they are used for such items as refrigeration, foam-made substances of various kinds, aerosol propellants, and for solvents in electronics. They are safe except for this great danger to the upper atmosphere. They are non-toxic. The great difficulty is that they are used every day. Industry must find alternatives. That is why the Montreal protocol has reached this important agreement over a period of years.

My Lords, is the Minister certain that the best advice is available to those who have CFCs to dispose of? What happens to waste from small electronic firms where the quantities involved are not great enough for them to call on local authorities for help but where the cumulative total may be considerable?

My Lords, I should like to consider what the noble Baroness said but I think she has gone outside the terms of the protocol which refers to what is called consumption and production. I do not believe that this provides problems of the kind which the noble Baroness has put forward. However, I should like to consider what the noble Baroness said.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the problem is the depletion of the ozone layer? Is the noble Lord aware that his answers so far seem very satisfactory and may lead to the withdrawal of my Written Question on the same subject if he maintains the same form in answer to this question? Will the Government, having regard to their awareness of the problem, maintain their policy with a view to seeing whether the problem is so serious that it might be necessary to cease production altogether of these substances? Does not the Minister agree that the present decision is only partially satisfactory and that the problem needs a close eye kept on it?

My Lords, I do not agree with what the noble Lord said at the end of his question. Our most up-to-date assessment shows that the Montreal measures should reach the goal of preventing depletion of the ozone layer. It is interesting to note that no single state which attended Montreal went for a reduction of more than 50 per cent.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his replies do not convey the sense of urgency that the danger of the situation suggests? Is he further aware that there is something that this country can do now? The biggest danger is from aerosol cans. Every year 7 million aerosol cans are made, of which 5 million are filled with CFCs; but 2 million are not filled with CFCs. They are used for about 550 different products. So we are getting along now with aerosol cans which do not contain CFCs. Will the Minister please consider banning the use of CFCs in cans used for personal reasons, household and non-essential reasons?

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's concern. However, he has inadvertently left out the fact that the European Community has already achieved a 35 per cent. cut in the use of CFCs for aerosols, and that this has occurred within the past few years. We now need to endeavour to put into effect, as a Community and a member state, the effects of the very important agreement at Montreal and not go for particular issues within that agreement. If we went just for aerosols we would be leaving out the production and consumption of other CFCs, all of which are important.

My Lords, the noble Lord did not answer my first question. Why did the Government change their minds so suddenly between the time of the letter he wrote to me on 5th August and the conference in Montreal in September? Was this, as we hope, a recognition by the Government that this is a very serious issue for the whole future of the human race? Is it not a fact that in that agreement there is provision for an increase in the production of CFCs? Can the Minister tell the House what the Government proposed and what arose from the Montreal conference as to how the effect of CFCs on this widening gap in the ozone layer is going to be monitored, and by whom?

My Lords, the short answer to the noble Lord is that we were not prepared to reveal our negotiating position ahead of important negotiations to anyone, not even to the noble Lord.

My Lords, who is to monitor the effect of CFCs and the results of the Montreal agreement on the widening gap in the ozone layer? What will be done about the results of that monitoring?

My Lords, that of course is something in which the United Kingdom is playing a leading role. The available evidence has come mainly from United States and United Kingdom scientists, the latter being members of the Antarctic survey.

My Lords, the Minister must admit that Britain is dragging her feet here. Other nations are labeling—

My Lords, I am sorry. Is my noble friend aware that other nations are banning the use of CFC in aerosols and using labelling, neither of which are done in this country?

My Lords, I am sad that my noble friend feels that the United Kingdom is dragging its feet. With respect, I do not think that that is the case. We were one of the three members states who co-operated with the European Commission in the negotiations for the protocol which has been widely recognised as being a major step forward. We were the first European Community country to ratify the Vienna convention on research and the exchange of information. That was at a time when as a Community we were reducing the use of CFCs in aerosols. We signed the Montreal agreement, and we and the other member states hope to ratify it on 1st January, 1989. I beg my noble friend not to overlook the fact that when we are talking about the first stage of the Montreal agreement, which is a freeze followed by a 20 per cent. cut followed by a 30 per cent. cut, that is based on 1986 figures. Those are figures which already show a considerable reduction in the use of CFCs in aerosols.

My Lords, following the Minister's noble friend's question, if 2 million aerosol cans work satisfactorily without CFCs why is it so difficult to ban their use in the other 5 million?

My Lords, if one buys an aerosol can without CFCs in it one wants to be extremely careful that it is not flammable.