HL Deb 06 March 1992 vol 536 cc1099-102

11.6 p.m.

Lord Buxton of Alsa asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is the case, as expressed by English Nature, that a significant hole in the ozone layer may be developing over Europe and what guidance they propose to give to the public in the immediate future.

Earl Howe

My Lords, while there has been an underlying decline in the total amount of ozone of between 4 per cent. and 6 per cent. over Europe during the past decade, there is no ozone hole over Europe and no indication that one will develop this Spring. We do not therefore propose to change the basis of existing public health advice on minimising exposure to sunlight.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. Perhaps I may put the Question again. I am trying to get a very simple answer to a very straightforward question. Is my noble friend saying that the Government do not think that there is any possibility of a hole developing over the northern hemisphere or, to put it another way, of there being any depletion of ozone in the foreseeable future? If so, then we are in conflict with other countries such as the United States, Canada, Denmark, Germany, and so on, and we shall be out of step. The second part of my Question asked what advice the Government propose to give to the public. The countries I have mentioned are getting a great deal of advice and information. They are probably interested but not necessarily alarmed. Do the Government propose to take any action on public information?

Earl Howe

My Lords, there has been some considerable misunderstanding of the issues in recent weeks. I shall say again, very clearly, that there is no Arctic ozone hole and there is no indication that one will develop this spring. However, the possibility of some area of enhanced depletion forming temporarily in future years in the northern hemisphere cannot be ruled out entirely. Turning to the second part of my noble friend's question, the real public health issue is that of exposure to sunlight generally, particularly sunbathing. In relation to that, the Health Education Authority has published a leaflet entitled Are you Dying to get a Suntan? and I have a copy with me. It deals with the health risks of exposure to sunlight. Copies of that leaflet were distributed to pharmacies through the pharmacy health care scheme in July last year, and copies are also available in the Library.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that at the recent United Nations Conference in Brazil, the United States Academy for Sciences and the British Royal Society issued a very serious statement to the effect that the earth's future is in grave danger. With the population increasing as fast as it is, the situation might be extremely dangerous in 20 years time.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government take these issues very seriously. The scientists studying the Arctic stratosphere are in constant direct contact with the Government. They report that the conditions they have observed are not progressing to extensive enhanced ozone depletion. Ozone levels have increased, and they are now within the normal range of values that are expected over the UK at this time of year.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is it accepted that such a diminution of the ozone layer as my noble friend has mentioned is due to atmospheric pollution, which causes sulphur-dioxide and carbon-dioxide to enter the atmosphere? If that is so, are the Government keeping a careful eye on the need to reduce atmospheric pollution?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. Atmospheric pollution is thought to play quite a considerable part in the ozone depletion that we are now experiencing. That is uppermost in our minds.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, is it not the case that government scientists have already reported that over the past decade the ozone layer over the United Kingdom has diminished by 8 per cent? Is it not the case that the United Nations environmental programme has reported that if there is a sustained 10 per cent. ozone depletion, there will be over 300,000 additional skin cancers; at least 4,500 extra cases of melanoma; 1.7 million eye cataracts; and up to 150,000 people made blind? In addition to that, it is believed that this can also cause a great increase in the depletion of immunity with the possibility of an increase in diseases such as HIV.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the health problems associated with exposure to ultra violet, including skin cancer, cataracts and other skin and eye defects and the depression of the immune system. However, it remains the Government's view that the main risk to public health arises much more from people's lifestyles—in other words, the propensity of members of the public to expose themselves to sunlight during the summer. That is a much more acute risk than any risk of depletion in the immediate future in the ozone layer and the resultant levels of UV increase.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can my noble friend clarify another point in this area about which there is some doubt and misunderstanding? Are not CFCs one of the largest threats to the ozone layer? If CFCs used in refrigeration are contained and disposed of correctly and not released casually or deliberately into the atmosphere, is it correct that they will not damage the ozone layer?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government are very aware of the issues raised by my noble friend. As I am sure he will know, the Montreal Protocol obliges us to cease production of the most harmful chemicals. In the case of some, this will be done by the end of 1995, and, in the case of halons in particular, by the end of 1994. These are very important matters. We are doing our best to ensure that the phasing-out of such gases takes place at the earliest possible moment.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, do I understand the noble Earl aright? Is he saying that English Nature is wrong in stating that a significant hole in the ozone layer may be developing over Europe? Secondly, have the Government studied the experience in New Zealand, where a significant hole in the ozone layer has caused serious health problems? The government there have taken some fairly dramatic action to prevent the effects of what is in fact an ecological problem.

Earl Howe

My Lords, there has, I think, been some misunderstanding about these questions. United States and European scientists pointed out last month that the Arctic stratosphere exhibited the conditions that lead to enhanced ozone depletion. But those reports were unfortunately misinterpreted as announcing actual or imminent ozone holes of Antarctic proportions over the northern hemisphere. That is where the message has become a little twisted.

With regard to the experience in New Zealand, I am afraid to say that what is being experienced there and in Australia arises from the different atmospheric conditions that prevail over the South Pole, conditions which, for a variety of reasons, are not replicated over the northern hemisphere.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, is it not the case that ozone is a greenhouse gas and that, should a hole develop in the ozone layer, it would cool down the world a little? Can my noble friend kindly tell us whether ozone depletion might have some positive spin off?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend raises an interesting issue because it is now thought that the ozone depletion caused by CFCs has a cooling effect on the Earth's atmosphere that may partially offset the very strong global warming properties of CFCs themselves. But much more research is needed to produce precise estimates of the effect.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, perhaps I may—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, we have to be careful to safeguard the interests of other noble Lords who have put down Questions.