Provides a global view of acidification and explains the science, politics and the economics of acid pollution
ACID EARTH The Politics of Acid Pollution: John McCormick, pub. by Earthscan Publications, London, distributed by Viva Books Pvt. Ltd., 4737/23, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 395.
Robert Angus Smith, a Scottish chemist coined the term "acid rain" as far back as 1870 to describe the quality of the rain which was affected by sulphur dioxide (SO2) released from coal burnt in factories. Yet it has taken more than a century for countries to grapple with the effects of gaseous emissions. After years of denial by the Thatcher Government in the U.K. and the Reagan administration in the U.S., both these countries as well as most countries of Europe (including the East Block) and Canada made a concerted effort by 1993 to roll back SO2 emissions by as much as 30 per cent compared to the 1980 baseline. Their record on oxides of nitrogen (NOx) is not so dramatic, since vehicles, which are a major source of NOx, are constantly increasing. Western Europe and U.S. have stabilised NOx emissions, while Russia and Eastern Europe have been less successful.
Unlike greenhouse gas emissions, which have "global" impact, acid rain has "transboundary" impact. Scandinavian countries have been at the receiving end of gaseous emissions from the U.K. and Germany, while Canada has been affected by the U.S. emissions. It is not surprising that these countries have been in the forefront of the campaign to reduce emissions by forming the "30 per cent Club". Instead of merely pointing the finger at the sources of pollution, the receiving countries also committed to reducing their own emissions by 30 per cent.
Another interesting part of the story is that the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), which despite its name includes the U.S. and Canada carried out the negotiations not an environmental agency. The ECE also includes the countries of Eastern Europe unlike the OECD. The ECE Convention on Acid Emissions was adopted in 1979 as a multilateral agreement to reduce gaseous emissions. The Sulphur Protocol of 1985 was an agreement to reduce SO2 emissions by 1993 and the NOx Protocol of 1988 sought to freeze emissions by 1994. The SO2 goal was reached by all the countries and the NOx goal by most of them except six signatories.
McCormick tells this story of successful environmental governance at the international level with great clarity. While the convention had to be painstakingly negotiated, individual countries did their part to achieve the goals. Even a recalcitrant U.S. was brought on board by Canada, since U.S-Canadian relations were seriously strained on the issue of acid rain. The use of tradeable SO2 emissions in the U.S. was successful in overcoming the initial resistance of the mid-western states.
In the first part of the book, McCormick provides the backdrop the scientific dimensions such as the chemistry of acid rain, the damage to ecosystems such as forests, lakes and human health, and the control technologies to remove sulphur. He also discusses the process of signing the convention and the protocols. Additional protocols on volatile organic compounds and ammonia are on the anvil. National and regional experiences are discussed in detail in the second section. The chapter on Russia and Eastern Europe is illuminating since there is comparatively less information on environmental policy in Eastern Europe. After years of denial, Poland, the Czech Republic and East Germany realised that the damage to ecosystems and human health in their countries was considerable. Also of interest is that the "poor cousins" of Western Europe (Spain, Portugal and Greece), and Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and the former Yugoslavia of Eastern Europe were given some leeway, since they were in the growth phase.
The last chapter on the newly industrialising countries is of interest to Indian readers. Only Japan, the two Koreas, Taiwan and the Philippines have reduced SO2 emissions between 1980 and 1987. SO2 emissions have increased by 50 per cent in India, China and Thailand, and nearly doubled in Pakistan. China is the second largest emitter of SO2 after the U.S. at 20 million tonnes per year. Indian emissions are very much lower at three million tonnes mainly because Indian coal has low sulphur content (less than one per cent). Of greater concern is the high ash content. However, NOx emissions of 2.5 million tonnes are rapidly growing due to vehicular pollution. But given the peculiar geography of India, the transboundary dimension of "acid rain" has not been a serious concern as yet.
McCormick does not mention the recent controversy over the Asian Brown Cloud (ABC) caused by gaseous emissions in Asia. While scientific research must continue, the control of gaseous emissions in India is important for health and welfare of Indian citizens regardless of ABC or the transboundary implications.
The most important lesson of Acid Earth is that countries which sign international agreements must be certain that they are willing to take the hard and often unpopular decisions to meet the targets. Denial of scientific data may be politically strategic but unacceptable in an interdependent world.
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