HL Deb 20 December 1989 vol 514 cc265-73

3.2 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to call attention to the case for urgent international action to protect the environment, to safeguard human, animal and plant life on this planet, and to reduce the release of harmful and dangerous substances into the atmosphere, the sea, and rivers; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to thank all those in all parts of your Lordships' House who have put their names down to speak in the debate. I shall listen with great interest to what they have to say.

I suggest that this is an appropriate subject for your Lordships' House. Members of this House were raising their concerns about the world's environment well before most people had heard of the greenhouse effect or depletion of the ozone layer. That is not surprising because there is so much specialised knowledge and experience here. When I drew attention to such matters at Question Time and in debates some time ago I detected feelings outside this Chamber that we were straying into science fiction. Now it is accepted that those disagreeable events and phenomena are fact and that they require combined international action to forestall the worst of their foreseeable effects.

Fortunately, governments have been responding to the alarm signals, including our Government in Britain. I remind your Lordships that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister gave a clear message in her speech to the Royal Society in September last year that very high priority would be given to protection of the world's environment, at the same time giving a lead to other countries with which we must co-operate. Last month she flew to New York to speak to the United Nations General Assembly on the same theme.

International co-operation is urgently needed in research to investigate the likely changes in the state of our planet, if man's activities are not adjusted, and to prepare and respond in good time.

I shall mention in turn the most worrying developments which could adversely affect our planet, and the part being played by the British Government. The first is global warming, known as the greenhouse effect. There will be another debate on another day because our Select Committee on Science and Technology reported on that subject in October after its sub-committee had conducted an inquiry chaired by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, who I am delighted to see is to speak in this debate. No doubt that debate will take place in the first part of 1990. While research is continuing it appears that gradual warming is being caused by gases emitted mostly by human activities, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and methane. It is already clear that reduction is desirable and may be essential.

At the same time huge areas of forest and vegetation are being destroyed. They would have helped to absorb the carbon dioxide. The ice caps at the poles are likely to be reduced. Their melting will raise sea levels and cause inundations and permanent flooding of low-lying land where at present large numbers of the world's inhabitants live. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) are co-ordinating international action. I am delighted that this year the United Kingdom doubled its contribution to UNEP.

A year ago the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to carry out further research. Only last month there was a meeting of Ministers at Noordwijk in the Netherlands at which 60 countries were represented. I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Hesketh, who is to reply, whether there is to be an international agreement which can be built upon by protocols as in other fields; for example, the MARPOL system in the area of marine pollution to which protocols were added and the Vienna Convention on the ozone layer which is now developing in the same way.

I should also like to ask my noble friend about the tropical forests. Certain developing countries have to be persuaded to take action which they probably believe is against their economic interests. I have seen references to a tropical forestry action plan. Is that part of the international effort to prevent destruction of those forests?

International action is also needed on the depletion of the ozone layer which, it is worth noting, was discovered by the British Antarctic Survey. The ozone layer protects life from harmful rays of the sun and depletion is caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used mainly in aerosols and in refrigeration. It should be possible to rectify that situation through co-ordinated changes in practice and discipline within each country.

In aerosols the components are being changed to harmless substances although there are still some exceptions. In this country, for example, retailers mark CFCs very clearly on the outside of the aerosol, but CFCs should be on the way out altogether. Refrigerators are safe when they are in use and sealed. It is the disposal and scrapping of refrigerators which is dangerous because, unless this is done by safe procedures, CFCs are released into the atmosphere.

After the Vienna Convention, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 called for a 50 per cent. reduction in the use of CFCs by the end of this century. The British Government convened an international conference in London last March —an admirable initiative to draw attention to the urgency, especially in the case of countries not yet parties to the Montreal Protocol. Over 120 countries were represented. Within the EC it is gratifying to see that progress is being made even faster. An agreed target has been determined for phasing out all CFCs by the end of the century. So encouraging action is being taken by industrialised nations.

It now seems principally a problem for developing countries, and a strategy to help them must be formulated on a worldwide basis. For example, China and India have vast programmes for the installation of refrigeration which have already started. They cannot all be using new systems with substitutes for CFCs. I understand that a working group was formed when the parties to the Montreal Protocol met at Helsinki last May. I ask my noble friend: is that now the way forward? Do the Government expect proposals and recommendations from that group on an international plan for the developing countries? I understand that the next meeting of parties to the convention will be in London in 1990 and I am glad that the United Kingdom is again being host to enable other countries to confer on the subject.

I turn now to the subject of acid rain which is caused by emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from industrial plant. Here there is an EC directive of November 1988 which calls for stage reductions from 1980 levels into the 1990s. I understand that the United Kingdom is carrying that out through a very large programme. While acidic conditions in forests and lakes are not yet fully accounted for and research continues, those agreed reductions cannot fail to be beneficial.

International action is also needed on the disposal of toxic wastes and the carriage of hazardous substances. Poisonous wastes from industrial processes cannot all be safely treated at or near the place of origin, although the situation should improve. An irresponsible but lucrative trade started in dumping toxic wastes at sea or burying them unsafely in remoter parts of the world. It has now been condemned and is being halted. The voyaging of the ship the "Karin B" illustrated to the world the dangerous and disreputable practice of easy dumping.

The international community has moved more quickly than usual on the subject. The Basel Conference in March produced a convention which the United Kingdom signed in October. Noble Lords will remember that I had the good fortune to win a ballot in this House and initiated a debate here a few days before the Basel Conference. Some noble Lords joined me in the suggestions made then to my noble friend Lord Caithness as to points which should be raised at the Conference. He represented the United Kingdom at Basel and must take a great deal of credit for the success achieved. He entered into those negotiations with energy and enthusiasm and knew what was needed. I ask my noble friend today: how many countries have now signed the Basel Convention? Can he tell us more about the progress being made on it?

Nearer home, I come to the North Sea. Everyone agrees that there is too much pollution going into it, largely from rivers from both East and West. The last conference of the eight countries concerned was hosted in the United Kingdom two years ago. I am glad that agreement was reached on some relieving measures, including a 50 per cent. reduction in dangerous substances in rivers by 1995; the end of dumping of harmful industrial waste in 11 days' time at the end of the year; a ceiling set for levels of sewage sludge; and the ending of incineration of dangerous substances at sea by the end of 1994. The next North Sea conference is to be at The Hague in March and I ask my noble friend what progress he expects will be made there. Will there be different subjects for discussion or will it be a matter of trying to improve the timetables, such as the ones that I have mentioned?

I can say that in general this year's colour has been green. It has also been favoured as a colour by a number of other countries and the time is propitious for advances in policies and practices which protect or enhance the benign natural background to life on this planet.

I turn therefore to the domestic scene here in Britain. The Government's so-called "Green Bill" —the Environment Protection Bill —is eagerly awaited. I am told that it may be published or printed within the next two days. We must then discuss the Bill at its various stages after it has been through the Commons. We understand that it will start in another place, so we shall no doubt get down to the details in the early summer.

If we are to play our part in international plans and influence other countries, we must put our own house in order. One way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other offending gases is to improve efficiency in the use of electricity and other forms of energy. Here there is a great deal to be done in the design and use of controls, of buildings and particularly in the design of heating and other appliances, and in insulation.

I make it clear that I do not subscribe to the extreme Greenism, for example, which would advocate slashing economic growth and reducing standards of life. I advocate renewable forms of energy where practicable —wind, water and tide. The hydro-electric potential in the United Kingdom has already been almost fully taken up. Most of what is practicable has been done. Other renewable sources in the foreseeable future can make only a limited contribution and provide a modest percentage share though an important one.

Major changes which are desirable for the environment cannot be undertaken without a reckoning of costs, deprivations and possible conflicts. The example which immediately comes to mind is reducing the offending exhaust gases from motor cars. Having removed lead, as is now happening, all the options at present include discouraging the use of cars. However, it has become a legitimate aspiration of many people in this world to own and drive a car. Should taxation be used as a disincentive? Should expensive exhaust cleaning equipment be insisted on, if that is a possibility? Should numbers be restricted by other means? That could be a deliberate deprivation in the general interest.

Policies of discouragement of that kind would be even more difficult to institute in the United States where the family automobile has become a household god. Costs must inevitably rise when industries have to fit special equipment to clean emissions and effluents. The public will perhaps accept slightly higher prices when convinced that they are necessary or desirable to protect coast or countryside. However, governments do not like anything tending to raise the price index. It is important that everything in that field is done by other countries at the same time in fairness to importers and home industries.

On the question of possible conflicts, an example is the installation of barrages in order to use tidal energy. The Severn and Mersey barrages are being considered. They are likely to be opposed by conservationists because of the threat, for example, to wading birds and other wildlife. There was a letter in The Times only last Saturday from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which, in summary, said that barrages would result in the degradation of the estuaries which should be jewels in the crown of United Kingdom nature conservation.

Turning to wind power, giant structures are required or a large area for wind farms. Those may be objected to also because they are eyesores. Unless ideal places can be found, and they are likely to be few, they will be controversial.

Another area of conflict is the development of recreation facilities and the conservation of areas of natural beauty and wildlife. Some 25 years ago during a debate in another place I expressed my anxiety about possible developments in the Cairngorms. I spoke of the threat to the dotterel which, as your Lordships will know, is a highland bird whose normal habitat is above 2000 ft. and therefore limited to mountain areas. An honourable Member from another party intervened and said that my remarks could only be of interest to an ornithologist, at which point all the Conservatives behind and beside me seemed to rise as one man and say, "But he is an ornithologist".

Be that as it may, I also insist that the interests of people in the area are also very important besides the conservation of the flora and fauna. Their interests and the preservation of rare species can and should be reconciled, with knowledge and care. Indeed, on other occasions I have pointed out that one of the endangered species in certain remote parts of Scotland is the human race.

With regard to recycling, perhaps I may give a last example of a local and less serious form of conflict. The recycling of glass and the admirable establishment of bottle banks have run into complaints of noise pollution; in other words, the hideous sound of smashing glass at unsocial hours.

For two periods I was chairman of ACOPS —the Advisory Committee on Pollution of the Sea —of which the president is sitting just in front of me. In that capacity I was engaged in preparing the conference on toxic wastes held last October in London. A very interesting point was raised on the incineration of waste at sea, which shows that there may be differences of opinion among experts. Some pointed out that if it is done at sea, one cannot be sure that it has been done properly, fully and at the right temperatures. Another school pointed out that it can be done because a kind of black box is used, as in aircraft, which can monitor and control from the shore. It was also stated that nothing goes into the sea; everything is dissipated in harmless gases. But if it is done on land, those harmless gases can be smelly and objectionable to the local population.

I believe that that is an excellent example. The first solution adopted may not remain the only one and could well be changed in that case.

To turn to the position of the Secretary of State for the Environment, I am delighted that it is my right honourable friend Mr. Chris Patten, whom I have known for many years, who holds that office. In function his department is responsible for England, with some functions in Wales. All those functions of the Department of the Environment are performed in Scotland by the Scottish Office. The Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible for all environmental matters there, including planning decisions after public inquiries. Likewise, Northern Ireland has its own ministers for the environment.

That division of functions and devolution, which have existed in Scotland for many years, are little known outside Whitehall and Westminster. In his day to day duties the Secretary of State for the Environment mainly works with England. But in addition I believe that he has a most important responsibility for the United Kingdom as a whole in international co-ordination and international affairs. That United Kingdom role is now more important and demanding than ever.

My right honourable friend Mr. Pat ten has a great deal to do in the international field representing the United Kingdom. I hope that that is clear from some of the things that I have described today. I believe that he should be the principal formulator for policies and co-ordinator of action in this country. I say that as a former Secretary of State for Scotland, accepting that all environmental functions in Scotland will continue to be performed by the Scottish Office —and indeed should be.

To end my remarks I have two questions to put to my noble friend. Both are matters in the international field, where the Secretary of State for the Environment is no doubt the lead Minister. From press reports it seems that a new European environmental agency is to be established and that several countries are competing for its location. Cambridge has been mentioned. I believe that that would be a suitable place, near the headquarters of some other organisations which are already working in the same field. In the past two years the Government have been offering resources and money for international activity. Are they offering money in this case, too?

Secondly, what do the Government expect to be achieved at the coming conference at Bergen in May on "sustainable development"? Will that be another opportunity for progress in reaching international agreement? Concerted scientific efforts are required, together with the determination of governments to work together. The British Government have recognised that need and are setting the pace in some areas. More of that good work is needed.

I hope that the momentum will be maintained, not only because of the new and dangerous situations which have arisen. We should all be motivated to ensure that the world is not left neglected or despoiled for the generations which will follow us. I beg to move for Papers.

3.26 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for introducing this topic and for doing so in such a comprehensive way. It seems that almost every week some new disaster looms and we are obliged to think in terms of even greater environmental protection. That should be a common goal for all of us regardless of race, creed or political outlook.

Over the past few years we have learnt that the destructive effect of our activities is moving us beyond the ability of the planet to recover. Unless we can modify those activities, mankind faces a bleak future. As the noble Lord said, those of us who made that kind of remark a year ago were not taken very seriously. During this past year more and more evidence has come forward and we are at last believed. Everyone takes the matter seriously.

As our understanding of the problem grows so we realise that the time that we thought was available to us is in fact far shorter than we believed. We cannot wait for proof of our predictions because proof could be the arrival of a disaster from which we might not recover. We must adopt a precautionary approach now. If our fears are proved wrong, that will be a bonus; but if they are right, then finding out the hard way is not an acceptable option. At this time one of the difficulties that we face in our country is that the present Government are committed to policies and beliefs which are incompatible with environmental protection. Living with the values of the marketplace means that a price is placed on everything. The natural consequence is that eventually someone is prepared to pay the price, especially when it can be passed on to the user of goods or services. So putting a price on pollution is not the whole answer, although it may be part of it.

Some areas of our wellbeing are beyond price. Once sold or destroyed they can never be recovered. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said, there are signs of greater awareness in recent government utterances. However, we still wait to see those words translated into action. We had some most encouraging speeches from the Prime Minister, starting in September 1988 and continuing through this year. We welcome them but action is still a bit short. For example, the noble Lord referred to CFCs. So far as I am aware the production of CFCs in this country is still at the level that it was before the debate began. Even if we are not using them ourselves in our aerosols, somebody somewhere is using them.

Overpopulation is at the root of most of mankind's problems. World population doubled between 1950 and 1987 from 2.5 billion to 5 billion. It is currently growing at almost a quarter of a million people each day. In this country the Green Party has proposed a 25 per cent. reduction in population. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that admirable though the Green Party's aims may be, the means by which they propose to reach them are sometimes very doubtful. It is difficult to achieve population control in a free country. Are we to limit child numbers in families, to banish the elderly, or to turn our backs on medical advances which protect so many of us from illness?

The internal combustion engine has become one of the greatest polluters, as the noble Lord has already said. However, we cannot now forbid its use without serious disruption, for example, of agricultural efficiency, and without severe damage to freedom of movement. It has become the poor man's magic carpet and we all depend on it. I would hope that we shall not reach a stage where we ration it by price. I believe that that would be most unfortunate because it is very often the poorer people in rural communities who are utterly dependent now on the motor car.

We are almost as dependent on electricity as we are on water. If the supply fails even for a short time many of us would die and our sophisticated economic systems would be reduced to chaos.

All the activities that I have mentioned are sources of environmental pollution creating waste products which could ultimately overwhelm the planet. We are consuming fossil fuels that cannot be replaced. We are not developing sustainable alternatives with anything like enough speed. The noble Lord drew attention to the pollution of rivers and seas, to the destruction of the ozone layer, and, —perhaps most immediately —to the rapid advance of global warming. I do not propose to continue about the global warming aspect because we shall be debating that at great length in the new year.

Those are global dangers on which all governments must act together and separately within their own boundaries. As a community we can do our share. A saying much quoted by my Victorian grandmother in my youth was: if each before his own door swept the village would be clean. That applies to countries as much as to individuals.

We as individuals can make a start by avoiding waste. Power stations are one of the main contributors to the greenhouse effect. Yet we continue to waste electricity. If we were to apply known methods of energy conservation such as home insulation and low energy bulbs now, we could save the equivalent of five power stations. We could recycle much of our household waste. Opinions vary about the total savings. I understand that the Secretary of State has said that the target should be 25 per cent. by the end of this century. Other opinions vary between 60 per cent. and 80 per cent. of what could be saved now. But everyone agrees that we could save at least half our throwaway waste. The Americans remind themselves that nothing is thrown away. There is no "away" to throw it to. One is just putting it somewhere else.

The noble Lord has discussed unleaded petrol. It has the obvious and desirable effect of reducing lead in the environment. However, more importantly, it is the first step towards the use of catalytic converters which will reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. However, I was alarmed to learn the other day that the use of unleaded petrol results in the production of more benzine in exhaust fumes. We are therefore creating yet another problem. I do not know whether the noble Lord who is to answer can say whether this problem has yet been grappled with by the Department of the Environment.

All these efforts must be underpinned by the Government by means of strong legislation firmly monitored. The Minister no doubt will direct us to the forthcoming green Bill. I have not yet seen it. But if advance publicity is true, it will have much to commend it. However, having seen the confused and damaging arrangements for nature conservation in the United Kingdom that have recently emerged from the Department of the Environment, I am not at the moment optimistic about its effects. Time is running out. We must have wholehearted commitment if we are to do our share of the task of saving the planet.