Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Acid rain: victims complain, polluters stall

By Armin RosencranzArmin Rosencranz directs the International Comparative Study of Transboundary Air Pollution at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. with support from the German Marshall fund of the United States. / December 10, 1980



On Nov. 16, 1979, the first broad international agreement covering acid rain and snow, the "Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution," was signed in Geneva by 34 member countries of the UN Economic Commission for Europe. Also , on June 30, 1980, the Council of the European Communities enacted its long-awaited sulfur dioxide (SO[2]) directive dealing with the precursor of acid rain.

Skip to next paragraph

Meanwhile, however, worldwide coal burning is on the increase, and hardly any of the industrial countries are willing to invest the necessary capital in air pollution control technology.

The directive of the European Communities is so weak that member countries should be able to comply with it while making little change in their present practices -- and with no appreciable impact on acid rain.

Moreover, nothing, certainly not a Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution, can make them do it. The convention merely provides for the sharing of information, collaborative research, and continued monitoring of pollutants and of rainfall. It contains no numerical goals, limits, timetables, abatement measures, or enforcement provisions.

In Geneva, the United States praised Scandinavian endeavors to focus attention on the acid rain predicament while resisting Scandinavia's efforts to impose specific standstill or abatement goals in the treaty. Any such provision could require strengthening America's clean air regulations, already under pressure because of the shift to coal burning.

West Germany has steadily resisted any proposals that would require adjustments in its domestic air pollution control policies, energy options, or even measurement methods. The British are publicly skeptical about the urgency and the supposed irreversibility of the acid rain problem, even in the face of evidence showing that Britain may be contributing as much as 60 percent of the sulfur compounds that Norway receives. Meanwhile more and more lakes in southern Scandinavia are becoming acidified and devoid of fish.

Bilateral arrangements do not fare much better. The Canadian environment minister describes acid rain as "the most important issue between the United States and Canada today." But Canadian-US negotiators are far from a formal agreement on what to do about it after two years of talks, notwithstanding periodic announcements of progress. Meanwhile, the United States continues to send four times as much sulfur pollution to Canada as it receives from that country, and now proposes to convert 80 oil-fired power plants to coal without installing sulfur-reducing technology.

The Netherlands and West Germany are also talking about their mutual acid rain problem. Yet both countries have recently increased their use of high-coal to generate power.

Thus the prospects for the future look unpromising. The countries that suffer from acid rain will undoubtedly urge treaty signatories to "endeavor to limit, and, as far as possible, gradually reduce and prevent air pollution." The polluting countries will probably continue to call for firm scientific evidence of acid rain's effects. The qualified terms of the new treaty certainly give the polluters ample room to evade remedial action.

Nevertheless, the consciousness of many was raised through the course of the Geneva negotiations, and Norway and Sweden will undoubtedly keep the pressure up in Europe. The most likely area for progress may come through carrying out visions for exchanging available information on "major changes in national policies and in general industrial development, and their potential impact, which would be likely to cause significant changes in long-range transboundary pollution."

Aggressive implementation of this provision by victim countries, and of its attendant notice and consultation requirements, would afford an opportunity to attract the attention of the news media and citizens in the polluting countries. This could not help having a salutary influence on the polluters' plans for sulfur control.

The publication by the ECE secretariat of member states' energy scenarios could offer another means by which victim countries might influence the policies of the polluting countries.

Information exchanges among ECE countries on developing coal-utilization technologies should guarantee rapid dissemination of new technological developments. Broad multilateral subscription to such technologies may yield economies of scale sufficient to make them affordable.

Finally, ECE-mandated multilateral research on crop damage and health effects from sulfate aerosols and acid rain may sooner or later demonstrate clearly the cost effectiveness -- indeed, the necessity -- of controlling and abating sulfur emissions throughout the industrial world. That, ultimately, would induce responsible officials to revise upward their estimates of what is economically feasible.