HL Deb 03 July 1986 vol 477 cc1031-3

3.22 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

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 weight they attach to theories that, unless care is taken in the choice of the main fuels used in the world, the atmosphere could be so changed as to produce a greenhouse effect with serious results for most forms of life.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government recognise that international scientific opinion now accepts the probability that the continuing accumulation of carbon dioxide and other so called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will lead to an increase in global temperature. Somewhat over half these gases result from fuel combustion. Best current estimates are that a rise of 0.5 degrees centigrade may already have taken place and that a further increase of about 3 degrees centigrade may occur by the middle of the next century. The processes are complex and the implications for sea level, rainfall distribution and local climate are still uncertain. For this reason the Government are supporting co-operative research through the world climate programme. It is too soon to consider specific policies to mitigate possible effects.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. Has he seen reports from the United States that such a development would be considerably more dangerous to life than radioactivity arising from nuclear accidents? As the greenhouse condition would be caused by excessive use of fossil fuels, notably coal, is there not a pressing need for international co-ordination of all sources of energy?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I have not seen such wide-ranging reports from the United States as described by my noble friend in his first supplementary question. I have seen the article by John Gribbin in the New Scientist of 15th May reporting on the four reports of the United States Department of energy which have just been published. I agree with the foreword of those reports, which says: The citizens of today's nations have the responsibility for the stewardship of all the Earth, including their actions which may affect climate. Exercising this reponsibihty requires an understanding of atmospheric carbon dioxide and its effects Once understood, stewardship then becomes nurturing rather than unrecognised neglect". So in regard to exercising this responsibility, I agree with my noble friend's second point.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that 30 years ago this country, under a Conservative Government, set a splendid example to the rest of the world with our original Clear Air Act? Will he ensure that the advantages obtained for this country and the experience gained as a result of the administration of that Act are given world-wide publicity, so that other nations may benefit from our example? Will he also say to what extent it is considered that deforestation, especially of the rain forests of Central Africa and South America, has a bearing on this important matter?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, yes, I believe with my noble friend that this country can be justly proud of the Clean Air Act 1956, which of course went a long way toward reducing atmospheric pollution. But I should point out that we are a long way from total understanding of the relevant chemical interactions in the atmosphere. I certainly agree that the effects that the Act has had in this country should be published world-wide.

So far as concerns tropical forests, they are of course generally important in the cycle of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The destruction of forests reduces the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the air. Burning obviously produces carbon dioxide as well. Reafforestaton of crop growth partly reverses the process. Overall, deforestation is thought to contribute considerably less (about 10 per cent. to 20 per cent.) to atmospheric carbon dioxide than fuel combustion.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that while no doubt this development needs watching, the suggestion that it is probably more dangerous than nuclear radiation is one that a number of us would hardly like to support? No doubt there are things about which all of us are alarmed and others about which we are not alarmed, and if the human race wants to continue it had better keep a fairly close eye on all of them. Does the noble Lord agree?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that nuclear power has its own particular problems, but raising the sea level is not one of them.

Lord Rea

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that renewable sources of energy would be free from this particular problem? Is he further aware that there has been widespread criticism of the Government's reduction in funding for resarch and development of wave power, which is potentially a huge source of energy, particularly on the Atlantic coast off Scotland? Does he not think that the Government should change their policy on this matter and perhaps put a little more money into this promising development?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that of course renewable sources would be free from the particular problem of the greenhouse effect. Some years ago this Government had a policy of reviewing all forms of possible renewable energy; since when, having conducted that review, they have put their greatest research effort and money into those which look the most promising. I think that the House will agree that this is the right way to perform.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, can the noble Lord assure the House that the level of support for the Natural Environment Research Council is sufficient to deal with what research can be done in this country? For example, is he aware that at the moment there is no director of atmospheric research? Has he any comments to make on that fact?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the NERC does not take the lead in this particular form of co-operation and research so far as climate is concerned. This is done by the Meteorological Office. The cost of the programme in 1984–85 was £7.7 million.