HL Deb 14 July 1982 vol 433 cc338-40

2.47 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have ratified the 1979 Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution signed in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the Government intend to ratify the convention jointly with other member states of the European Community tomorrow, 15th July.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that most gratifying Answer, which seems to give universal pleasure. May I further ask him what replies the Government have given to the persistent complaints of the Scandinavian countries that their crops and property are being damaged by acid rain which they attribute to industrial pollution generated in Britain and carried on the winds to Scandinavia?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the United Kingdom was represented at the conference by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Giles Shaw, who led the United Kingdom delegation. This was in Stockholm. We were represented there by scientists and officials at meetings of experts which took place in the previous week. I do not want to say more about that because my honourable friend is shortly going to make a Statement on this matter in response to a question.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I was under the impression that the majority of the acid rain came from Germany, where vast areas of forest have been destroyed by this pollution.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think my noble friend's comments underline how difficult it is to find out what causes acid rain. The effects are not yet clearly established. As I understand it, it is the forests themselves which are being rained upon by acid rain, the results of which are not yet fully documented.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, although happily we are going to ratify the convention tomorrow, it will not come into effect until most European states have ratified it. Therefore, will the Government, in the meantime, undertake to take action—as they are entitled to—since it is the sulphur emissions horn the chimneys of the power stations in this country which are the principal cause of acid rain in south Scandinavia?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think that perhaps the noble Baroness goes a little far to say that this is the principal cause of what is going on in Scandinavia. Our activities comprise a very small percentage of what is going on there. Perhaps I can say that, although the convention has not yet come into force, action has proceeded on an interim basis. A Europe-wide monitoring programme is under way to determine the extent of acid rainfall in Europe and a group of experts from signatory countries, including the United Kingdom, is reviewing the scientific evidence on the effects of air pollution, including acid rain, on the environment, and the cost, damage and control. The convention itself is likely to come into force later this year once 24 of the 35 signatories have ratified.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, since the acid rain is not labelled, nobody really knows where it comes from? It might just as well come from Russia as from Britain.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, in point of fact one of the sadnesses of the Stockholm Conference was that the Eastern European countries were not represented. Of course, we should very much like to get their evidence as well.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is it not possible to resolve this matter once and for all—and following the noble Earl's question—by labelling the flue gases from power stations with other isotopes of sulphur that will enable the fall-out to be identified as coming from a particular origin? Would not the Minister also confirm that the problem with acid rain is now spread not just from Scandinavia but to the entire Northern Hemisphere, and that our own agriculture in this country is threatened in the long term with serious side effects from this cause? Therefore, should it not be the subject of intensive research by the Government, probably in co-operation with other European and North American nations?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think I have said in my reply that the problem is being actively considered and research is progressing alongside the present convention. If I may state one factor, sulphur dioxide emissions, which account for about 70 per cent. of the acidity in rainfall, have reduced very substantially in the United Kingdom in the past decade. The trend will, we hope, continue for the foreseeable future. There are a number of reasons for this and they include the changing industrial patterns, the energy conservation policies and the use of low sulphur fuels and of nuclear power.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister this question? As we know not from whence it comes, is this not a matter that should be referred to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think that there is a little research that we can do which may perhaps help him.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that we ought first to hear the results of the research to find out what proportion of the atmosphere is acid before jumping to conclusions?

The Earl of Avon

I am grateful for my noble friend's calm reaction.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, what matters is which way the wind blows, and whether the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury could divert the great winds is a matter for conjecture. When the wind blows Nor' Nor' West, terrible consequences result!