Hugh Rossi – 1985 Speech on Acid Rain

Below is the text of the speech made by Hugh Rossi, the then Conservative MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, in the House of Commons on 11 January 1985.

I welcome this opportunity to debate the report on acid rain of the Select Committee on the Environment, and with it the Government’s reply to the report. I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for having kept his promise to find time for the debate. Select Committee reports are not frequently discussed on the Floor of the House. Indeed, not a single Environment Committee report was debated in the House for the whole of the 1979–83 Parliament. This is the third debate accorded to the present Committee since it was appointed to the House a little over 12 months ago, so we are indeed fortunate. Having said that, I must add, without, I hope, appearing a little churlish, that I would have preferred a better time for the debate than a Friday immediately following the end of a curtailed recess. We are discussing a subject of growing importance, when public awareness is heightening, and I know that many colleagues would have wished to be present had they been able to alter their arrangements. However, I recognise the Government’s preference for a low-key parliamentary occasion on this subject, so I must be grateful for small mercies.

This is an all-party report of a Committee composed of seven Conservative Members, three Labour Members and one Liberal Member. It is a unanimous report. I wish to thank my colleagues on the Committee for all the hard work that they put in over three months to produce it in record time. Therefore, this is a House of Commons occasion, when the Back Benches seek to give some guidance to Ministers, having carried out in-depth research into matters that we know their administrative duties deny them the time to investigate in the same depth. I trust, therefore, that the debate will not be diminished by party-political posturing.

I say that directly to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) because I heard him on the radio this morning welcoming the report because it was “straight Labour party policy”. Until the report was published, I do not recall any great concern about the matter by the Labour party, certainly not in the general election campaigns of 1979 and 1983. Moreover, when I raised the problem of sulphur emissions when I was on the Opposition Front Bench during the Second Reading of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, I did not receive a very forthcoming reply from the Labour Minister of the day. Therefore, I find it hard to see a Labour policy, but I recognise opportunism when I see it.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The Labour party would reciprocate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman started his speech, but he has now introduced the dimension that he sought to avoid. Does he not agree that we could close this point by saying that those who insist on and enthuse about the magic of the market must watch it carefully when we deal with national and international matters of environmental pollution?

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for showing that he agrees that this should be a House of Commons matter, and should not be diminished by party political posturing. I thought it only right, having heard the hon. Member for South Shields on the radio this morning, to respond to him, because it was the only opportunity for me so to do.

I now turn to the report. The term “acid rain” is a convenient and graphic description of the problems that we consider in it. The term is not used in its strictest sense. Not all that is covered by it is rain. We are equally concerned with dry depositions and so-called “occult” depositions, or mists, as we are with acidified rain water. Not all that is covered by the term is acid. We take into account the problems attributed to man-made ozone. However, there is a consistent common denominator. All with which the report is concerned are the products of the combustion of fossil fuels emitted into the atmosphere, which on return to ground level, either singly or in combination with one another or some other elements, cause damage to the physical environment. Therefore, acid rain is a result of burning coal or oil, whether in power stations, industrial plant, domestic boilers and grates or motor car engines, which corrodes buildings, destroys water life, damages forests, trees and plant life, and might be detrimental to human health.

The Committee commenced its inquiry with a completely open mind, and came to the unanimous conclusion that action needed to be put in hand without delay to combat the effects of acid rain. The reasoning that led to our conclusions is set out in detail in the report. Our conclusions were reached after taking and evaluating evidence both here and abroad, much of it of a technical and scientific nature, in which we were assisted by our specialist advisers, Professor Alan Williams of Leeds university and Dr. Nigel Bell of Imperial college, London, to whom we are indebted for all their help and advice.

The first matter that impressed us was the concern and anxiety over acid rain that we found on our visits to West Germany, where extensive tree and forest damage has been experienced, and to Scandinavia, where severe fish losses have been suffered through acidification of lakes and rivers. In those countries there is little doubt as to the cause, although some scientists have differed on how the effects have come about. In those countries, where damage is so extensive and obvious, there is a high level of public awareness and political pressure on Governments to act.

By contrast, in the United Kingdom, there is no such awareness and, indeed, comparatively little scientific monitoring and investigation taking place. The reasons for that are several. First, because of our climatic conditions, prevailing winds and infrequent periods of summer anticyclones, we have so far escaped the obvious effects experienced in West Germany and Scandinavia. Secondly, the Clean Air Act 1956 and the tremendous benefits brought about by smoke-free zones have lulled us into a false sense of security. The London smog that killed some 4,000 people in December 1952 has been banished, and we enjoy 70 per cent. more winter sunshine in central London than in those years, and many species of birds and plants have returned to the area which, previously, could not survive there. That legislation was far in advance of that achieved by any other country. By getting rid of the visible atmospheric pollution, the grit and the soot, we believed as a nation that the problem had been solved.

Thirdly, to that was added the tall chimney policy, as a result of which industrial smoke is sent high into the atmosphere and its contents carried by the prevailing winds many miles from source. In consequence, public anxiety subsided and scientific investigation was reduced to a very low level.

There are large areas of the United Kingdom in which no monitoring of air quality has been taking place. The recording of acid deposition is patchy and primitive. Precious little has been done to study the corrosion of buildings for almost two decades. Inquiry into damage to trees and waterways has been uncoordinated and on a minute scale. Meanwhile, vast quantities of invisible sulphur dioxide and various oxides of nitrogen have continued to be poured out into the atmosphere from the burning of coal and oil.

Today, the United Kingdom is the largest single emitter of sulphur dioxide in Europe outside the Soviet Union with something in the order of 5 million tonnes per annum. A similar picture emerges for nitrogen oxide where only western Germany produces more than we do.

No one challenges the scientific fact that when sulphur dioxide is deposited on sandstone or limestone a chemical reaction takes place which reduces to powder the surface of the buildings with which they are made. The Committee had to talk to the architect for Cologne cathedral to discover that.

When the Committee returned to the United Kingdom, it found that the Building Research Establishment had done no work on that for two decades; the CEGB had started investigating the problem some two years ago only; and the PSA had kept no central records. However, inquiries of the curators of several historical buildings revealed extensive and widespread damage extremely costly to repair.

The Committee was also told in western Germany that the modern reinforced concrete structures suffer. The acid penetrates to the metal rods, causing them to corrode, rust and expand, fracturing the concrete fabric by internal pressure. No one, but no one, has been able to confirm that to the Committee in the United Kingdom because of a complete lack of study.

When the Committee came to consider the effects upon water life, it found the scientific picture to be more complex. The extent to which water life is affected by depositions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide depends upon the geology of the catchment area of the waters. There is no doubt that increased acidity of water kills vulnerable eggs and fry especially after snow melts when there can be a sudden surge of acidity. High levels of acidity leach toxic metals into the water which kill adult fish.

The acid effect can be buffered in areas where there is calcium in the subsoil, so fish there suffer less than in areas where a comparable degree of acid deposition falls upon granite.

In Sweden, 18,000 out of 20,000 lakes are acidified and some 4,000 have entirely lost their fish stocks. In Norway a survey of 2,840 lakes showed that 1,711 had lost their fish due to acidification. In the United Kingdom, the Committee found that fish loss is now being experienced in Scotland. A fish farmer in Dumfriesshire suffered serious unexplained losses until scientific research commissioned by him from Stirling university revealed that it was due to acidification of a burn from which he drew his water. Although the Committee does not have evidence, it understands that Wales is now expressing anxiety.

Liming is recommended by some British sources as an antidote. There is no doubt that artificial additions of calcium can neutralise acidity. However, the Swedes consider that to be a temporary measure at best, and the Norwegians say that it is useless in fast-running waters. It cannot combat the acid surges from snow melt at breeding time. They argue that the remedy is to stop the emission of the acid at source and not to attempt to combat it when it has been deposited.

The Committee found the effects on acid rain on trees and forests more difficult to investigate. That was mainly due to the fact that original observations in western Germany had again blamed sulphur dioxide as being the main culprit. It was suggested by some of their scientists that that released toxic metals in the soils, damaging fibre roots.

More recent studies have shown that ozone produced as the result of a reaction between nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons in sunlight is a significant cause of needle burn and loss to pine trees. It now seems to be generally accepted in western Germany and Scandinavia and by some scientists in this country that ozone is the principal factor in tree damage in western Germany and Scandinavia. In western Germany, the Committee found that some 50 per cent. of the forests are affected.

However, it must be remembered that, whether sulphur dioxide or nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons combining into ozone are the main culprits, all are the result of burning fossil fuels. The distinction lies in the source, as evidence shows that the motor car engine is equally culpable in the production of nitrogen and hydrocarbons whereas sulphur dioxide comes mainly from industry and power stations.

So far, the United Kingdom can rejoice in that it seems to have escaped the serious effects that acid rain has had on water life and forests in other countries. Whether we are simply some years behind other countries in feeling the cumulative effects of acid deposition because we have been protected by our climatic conditions is impossible to say. That requires monitoring and research, which has not been taking place.

Hence the several recommendations that the Committee makes for such programmes, which I am pleased to note that the Government have accepted, including those for the development of new combustion technology in industry, power stations and motor car engines for the reduction of emissions.

I must express the Committee’s gratitude for the fact that 19 of its 21 recommendations have been accepted by the Government and are to be acted upon. However, we are disappointed that the Government are not prepared to recognise the need for urgent action to reduce emissions. The experience of other countries suggests that, while damage may be slow in coming, it spreads rapidly when it does come, and the first signs have already appeared in this country.

The Committee feels also that we have a responsibility to our neighbours. Whilst our tall chimneys and prevailing winds enable us to export 70 per cent. of our sulphur dioxide production, saving ourselves from its worst effects, there is no doubt that we are causing severe damage in neighbouring countries.

Good international relations are important, as the Government recognise in many other aspects of their policy. It is therefore inexplicable that the Government should refuse to accept the Committee’s recommendation to join the “30 per cent. club” to which some 20 countries already belong. The commitment would be to reduce sulphur emissions by 30 per cent. by 1993, taking 1980 as the base year. This country has already achieved a 20 per cent. reduction in four years, leaving only the remaining 10 per cent. to be attained over the next nine years. Instead, the Government offer in their reply to attain that 10 per cent. over 16 years—by the end of the 1990s. The principle is accepted but the time scale is extended for what is, in the Committee’s view, a dangerously long time. This cannot begin to be an exercise in international co-operation. Surely it is not necessary to be so excessively timid. It shows a regrettable lack of good neighbourliness.

Curious about this aspect of the Government’s reply is the fact that, although they assert in paragraph 1.3 that they aim to achieve the 30 per cent. reduction by the 1990s, they do not say how they intend to achieve it. On the contrary. They go on to say that expenditure in curtailing flue gas desulphurisation in existing power stations cannot be justified.

If this solution is rejected and it is known that new combustion technologies will not be available for several years, let alone installed and operating, will the Minister please explain the precise Government programme for the 30 per cent. reduction and how it is intended to be achieved? The reply is totally silent on that.

The Committee also recommends that the Government embark, with our European partners, on a much more ambitious course than the 30 per cent. reduction; namely, the adoption of the EEC draft directive requiring a 60 per cent. reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions by 1995, again taking 1980 as the base year.

The power stations in Britain are by far the largest emitters both of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. The targets could be reached by the adaptation of some of the larger power stations and by requiring industry to install new technology as and when new factories are built.

The cost to the electricity generating industry would be substantial — approximately £1.5 billion, or the equivalent of a rise of 5 per cent. in electricity charges. All this cost, however, would be spread over a 10-year period.

It is perhaps understandable that the Government should have baulked at undertaking such a large expenditure, especially when their main preoccupation at present is to find every possible means of reducing public expenditure. It is even more understandable that the Government should have been reluctant when they have been receiving advice from not disinterested sources to the effect that it is by no means sure that the expenditure proposed would solve the problem.

In our report, we have collated evidence from a variety of outside sources from which information has not been collated before; evidence which has not previously been considered by Government advisers and Ministers. We believe that all the evidence leads inexorably to the conclusions that we have reached and that sooner or later the Government will be obliged to recognise the validity of our conclusions.

I can only express the hope that a more careful study will be made by the Government of the evidence that we have found and that they will then be moved to take urgent action before irrevocable damage is suffered, damage which in the long term will cost far more to mitigate than the sums posited in our report.