HL Deb 13 July 1990 vol 521 cc552-4

11.28 a.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will encourage research into substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons and the production of suitable replacement substances.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Trefgarne)

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. While the phasing out of CFCs is highly desirable, are they not still essential for refrigeration? For example, they are required for bulk perishable cargoes at sea in order to prevent other forms of pollution and food poisoning.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I understand that the vast majority of refrigerated cargo ships already use the new refrigerant HCFC22 which is only one-twentieth as damaging as the earlier CFC refrigerant. I hope that my noble friend will think that that is a useful development. It is important that ship owners and others using refrigerating equipment take special care to ensure that the refrigerant is contained within the equipment and does not leak into the atmosphere.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the British Thoracic Society will be told today by a professor from the University of Columbia who specialises in air pollution that, internationally, asthma attacks and chest infections have almost doubled in the past decade because of the use of fossilised fuels by power stations and emissions from car exhausts? Will the Government bear that in mind in any future energy policy?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, the Question is about refrigerants. However, the noble Lord raises an important point which is, of course, taken into account.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, with regard to refrigeration equipment, are the Government planning to do anything to assist third world countries in the disposal of equipment containing chlorofluorocarbons? The greatest emissions arise when air conditioning plants and refrigerators are destroyed. Third world countries using this equipment need assistance in disposing of it.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes, this was one of the conclusions of the recent London ozone conference of which the noble Lord may be aware. The United Kingdom is certainly pledged to contribute up to 15 million dollars to the initial three-year fund. I understand that some of that money will be used in respect of a study into the matter which is being conducted in India and to which the noble Lord referred.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, can the Government tell the House whether the present powers, of local government are adequate to require those who replace old refrigerators with new ones to deliver the old refrigerators to properly equipped decommissioning centres from which the CFCs can be returned to the manufacturers for recycling?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I understand that some thought is being given to that matter. Perhaps I may make further inquiries and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, while everything must be done to encourage the manufacture of substances which are satisfactory, there are difficulties in relation to HCFCs and HFCs which, in fact, cause some damage to the ozone layer and contribute to global warming respectively? Therefore, is there not a case for attempting to set international limits on those substitutes?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think that that is right, but I also think that we must be sure that there are proper substitutes coming along if we are to ban specific substances from important uses. However, I am pleased to report that ICI, for example, is well advanced with the development of a product called HFC143A which does not suffer from the objections of the other products. A plant to produce this new substance is likely to come on stream early next year.

The Earl of Balfour

My Lords, in their research for suitable substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons will Her Majesty's Government take care that any approved substitutes are not flammable; in other words, will they ensure that they cannot ignite?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it depends on the application of the substance concerned as to what characteristics it should have. The applications for these substances go wider than refrigeration plants but the point made by my noble friend is nonetheless a good one. It is also important to point out that the great majority of research into this matter, while in some cases supported by Her Majesty's Government, is generally carried out from a commercial point of view. The fact is that the market is now increasingly demanding that products are environmentally friendly—as jargon has it—and customers are clearly prepared to pay a premium for such products.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the answer he has just given raises another danger? Is he aware that ICI and Dupont in particular have been working on these alternative gases but, as my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis pointed out, they are no totally safe for the ozone layer and add to global warming? In encouraging this research, will the Minister ensure that the Government do not allow themselves to be persuaded by the strong commercial lobbies which have already produced misleading advertisements about such products being environmentally friendly? Will the Government also ensure that the investment which companies have made in these alternative gases is not allowed to obscure the fact that no gas yet produced as a substitute for CFCs is either safe for the ozone or for global warming?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I have to agree that no perfect substitute has yet been found. However, I would regard a product that represented only 5 per cent. of the difficulties of the earlier products to be a substantial improvement. I understand that ICI, for example, has invested about £100 million in developing the new product, and that is very much to be applauded.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, while accepting that the private sector may be best placed to carry out this research, is it not unwise to leave the whole matter to the functioning of the market? Should not the Government be taking an active line? If they are to take a more active line, can the noble Lord say how much money is being spent now by the Government in encouraging research? How much money would he expect to be reasonable?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am very much in favour of letting the experts in industry conduct their research free of interference from government. However, the Government do have programmes, as the noble Lord will be aware, for supporting collaborative research into these and related matters. I do not have a figure in front of me but if I can find one I will write to the noble Lord.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, while destruction and disposal of CFCs must be carried out under strictly controlled conditions, will my noble friend confirm that CFCs, used correctly in refrigeration, are not harmful while in use, provided that there are no leaks?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble friend is, of course, correct. Provided that the chemicals do not escape and eventually reach the ozone layer there is no obvious danger. The difficulty is that at various stages of the life of the equipment it has to be overhauled and repaired and there is always a slight risk that on those occasions leaks will take place. Therefore, I hope my noble friend agrees that in the fullness of time it is right for these substitutes to be replaced with less damaging products. As I said earlier, I understand that most refrigerated ships use some of the newer products so, in any event, there is less risk.