Whatever happened to... Acid rain?

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The Independent Online

Acid rain was going to cause the destruction of the human race. As it silently ate away at the cracks of British heritage, abroad it was destroying the rain forests and stealing our oxygen. 17 years ago this month, a report was released saying that acid rain is seriously contaminating Britain's lakes and rivers. Public and press combined to bring the problem to the attention of the politicians: a fuss was kicked up and action was supposedly taken. But has this had any effect?

What is acid rain?

For a long time it was thought that it was caused simply by the sulphur dioxide emissions resulting from the burning of coal. But this may not be the most important cause after all and over the last few years, nitrous oxides have been increasingly blamed.

57 million Britons sweat and exhale between 2,500 and 14,000 tonnes of ammonia every year. This is as potent an air polluter as other chemicals that are produced when fuels are burnt.

The casualties

In July last year, acid rain was blamed for causing pounds 30,000 damage to 50 classic cars at a rally in the Borders. Cambridge's focal point, the 550-year-old King's College Chapel, is also being gnawed away by the contaminated rainwater. But Britain was never really under too much threat from acid rain: far more damaging are the effects it has in South East Asia.

British pollutants also caused acid rain in Sweden and the Netherlands. In 1993, the Swedish environment minister accused Britain of threatening his country's economy and environment by failing to do its fair share in cutting European air pollution. His Norwegian counterpart, Thorbjorn Berntsen, was not so polite, calling the Secretary of State for Environment a drittsekk - shitbag.

What was done about it?

At first, the blame for acid rain was placed squarely on the shoulders of sulphur dioxide, and consequently expensive action was taken to try and curb the emissions produced from burning coal. But now there is confusion over just how potent the effects of sulphur dioxide are.

And now?

The amount of nitrogen oxides in the air is increasing. Just one cause is increasing emissions from cars, rising 38 per cent between 1986 and 1991 despite the introduction of catalytic converters.

A myth?

A controlled experiment in Liphook in Hampshire was conducted to test the effect of sulphuric acid and ozone on trees. Five plot of forest have been continuously fumigated with sulphur dioxide or ozone ever since to test the theory that this causes the trees to die. They thrived. .

The future

According to the Department of Environment, things could not be better. In December they announced that the UK was among the first countries to sign up to the UNECE Second Sulphur Protocol which commits Britain to cutting sulphur dioxide emissions by 80 per cent of the levels of the 1980s.

Elsewhere, the outlook is not so rosy. According to official sources, the use of energy, and with it the emissions of sulphur dioxide, will treble during the next 20-30 years.

Sam Coates