Orders of the Day — Combustion Plants (Air Pollution)

– in the House of Commons at 12:45 am on 4th July 1988.

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Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East 12:45 am, 4th July 1988

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 11642/83, 5124/85 and the proposals described in the un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum from the Department of the Environment of 9th June 1988 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum of 29th June 1988 on the limitation of emissions of pollutants into the air from large combustion plants; and calls upon the Government to support the agreement reached at the meetings of the Council of Environment Ministers on 16th and 28th June 1988 on proposals for a European Community Directive. The motion concerns a major piece of proposed European Community legislation on the environment—the the draft directive on the control of emissions from large combustion plants. This mainly concerns power stations, which are responsible for about 70 per cent. of United Kingdom sulphur emissions and 40 per cent. of nitrogen oxides, but also refineries and certain other large industrial plants.

It would be helpful to hon. Members to explain at the outset that the two deposited documents cited in the motion have been overtaken by events, and that my remarks are primarily addressed to the informal version of the directive which the Department submitted under cover of its explanatory memorandum of 9 June. I should mention that there have been a few changes in the proposals since then: notably, the emission reduction targets for individual states—details of which are set out in annexes 1 and 2 to the Department's supplementary explanatory memorandum of 29 June—revised proposals for monitoring and measuring emissions from new plants and special arrangements for Spain.

I am glad to be able to inform the House that agreement in principle has finally been reached on this directive. As hon. Members will no doubt be aware, the directive represents part of the European Community's response to the problem of acid rain and. in particular, the need to reduce emissions of pollutants which contribute to the problem—sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The other part of the response is the directive on vehicle emissions, which was agreed in December 1987 and, I am happy to say, is now to be supplemented by a further tightening of the controls on small cars agreed by European Environment Ministers last week.

The large combustion plant proposals were first put forward by the Commission in 1983, ostensibly in response to concern over the major forest damage being experienced in central Europe. Large elements of the directive were based on West German domestic legislation, which had been drawn up in response to this problem. I think that there is general acceptance that the problem of forest damage may call for rather more complex remedies than those being put forward five years ago. Equally, there is growing recognition that sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions play a large part in forming acid deposition, which contributes to freshwater damage, notably in Scandinavia, but also in some areas of the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

The draft EC directive in its initial form sought to impose tight standards on new plant, and very substantial overall reductions in each country's total large plant emissions by 1995, based on 1980 figures, of 60 per cent SO2 and 40 per cent. NOx and dust. We and a number of other countries did not consider that the across-the-board approach to emission reductions from existing plant was on a consistent or equitable basis. It suited countries whose emissions had peaked at 1980 levels or those which were investing heavily in nuclear power and would not need to make a major effort to achieve the required emission reductions. However, the formula was a very difficult one for the United Kingdom, bearing in mind that our SO2 emissions had fallen substantially in the decade before 1980 and in view of our heavy reliance on coal-fired power stations. It was also difficult for some of the less well developed states in the Community which are in the process of expanding their capacity to generate electricity.

Negotiations have taken place against a background of growing international concern about acid rain—concern that is fully shared by the Government. Growing evidence that emissions—not only from the United Kingdom but from a number of other countries—were implicated in the acidification of Scandinavian freshwaters prompted the Government to announce significant measures to deal with the problem. In 1984 we announced our aim to reduce emissions of SO2 and NOx by 30 per cent. on 1980 levels by the end of the 1990s.

We have taken significant steps towards achieving those targets. In September 1986 we announced that all new coal-fired power stations would be required to have the technology to control SO2 emissions, and that 6,000 MW of coal-fired generating capacity, the equivalent of three major power stations, would be retrofitted with flue gas desulphurisation equipment. In May 1987 we announced that all 12 major coal-fired stations would have low-NOx burners fitted, and that this technology would be a requirement for new power stations. Those measures will cost over £1 billion.

By any standards, it is a very substantial programme. Very few Community countries—only West Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands—are doing more than we are; most are doing much less. Nevertheless, the original Commission proposals would have required us to do considerably more.

We do not flinch from expensive measures when they are shown to be worth while to protect the environment, nor do we insist on absolute proof before taking remedial action, but we look for reasonable assurances that the action that we decide to take will be cost-effective. Under the original Commission proposals, the United Kingdom would have had to retrofit flue gas desulphurisation equipment to perhaps a further nine power stations at a likely additional cost of more than £2,000 million and within an impracticably short period.

We seriously questioned the extent to which action on that scale would bring worthwhile results ahead of the increasing use of low acid technology, such as fluidised bed combustion, low-NOx burners and coal gas gasification, towards the end of the next decade. Such a programme would bring with it major implications for waste disposal because of the quantities of chemical by-products produced in the scrubbing process—neutralising the acid with an agent such as limestone. The by-products concerned depend on the process used—gypsum, or, where regenerative processes are used to refine the product further, sulphur or sulphuric acid.

Up to a certain level of output, those products are of material value to the building industry or to the chemical industry, but too much and the countryside would be awash with them. Moreover, some of the targets set were just not physically attainable for the United Kingdom, with our high-sulphur indigenous coal, short of a massive switch to the use of imported low-sulphur coal.

The targets for emission reduction from existing plants have been modified under successive presidencies, and the position today is as set out in the annexes to the explanatory memorandum issued by the Department on 29 June. The basic approach is now a three-stage approach to reductions in overall SO2 emissions and two stages for NOx emissions. Different targets are to apply for different member states to reflect their particular circumstances.

The proposals have gone a long way towards recognising the needs and problems of individual member states, while still requiring a substantial overall Communitywide effort to reduce emissions. In the case of the United Kingdom, for example, the SO2 targets that we propose to accept give some credit for the emission reductions achieved before 1980. Those reductions—a 20 per cent. reduction on 1980 levels of large combustion plant emissions by 1993, 40 per cent. by 1998 and 60 per cent. by 2003——

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

Will the Minister confirm that those are not percentage reductions of the nation's emissions of sulphur but percentage reductions applying only to our large combustion plants?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

Yes, I certainly confirm that. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the reductions are very onerous and that even for the large combustion plants they will require a substantial further effort over and above the existing CEGB programme.

The Community has accepted that the United Kingdom's major programme to reduce NOx emissions from coal-fired power stations is fully in line with the spirit of the directive. I am glad to say that the figures proposed—a 15 per cent. reduction in large plant emissions by 1993 and 30 per cent. by 1998, again on a 1980 base—now reflect our programme.

The directive also sets stringent emission standards for new plant. It was during the United Kingdom presidency of the Community, in 1986, and under our initiative, that the negotiations on new plant standards began in earnest. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution is specifying requirements for SO2 emissions from new coal-fired power stations which are as tough as, if not tougher than, those likely to apply in any normal application in Europe.

However, one particular area of difficulty for the United Kingdom has been that of our indigenous high sulphur fuels. We clearly could not accept any provision that would virtually rule out the use in large combustion plants of the bulk of the coal mined in the United Kingdom. I am pleased to tell the House that our concerns on that score have been recognised. The Community has accepted proposals that would meet the problem while not compromising the high standards for new plant, which the United Kingdom favours no less than our Community partners.

For NOx abatement, the specification proposed by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution for United Kingdom plant is the tightest that it believes is achievable using "primary measures"—abatement through good design of the combustion system—which is the technical basis on which the directive is based. I am glad to say that Community agreement has been reached on new plant standards that reflect this. The Community has also reached agreement on a sensible and workable regime for monitoring and measuring those standards.

In return, we have been able to accept that the threshold at which the standards for large plants should begin to apply should he a capacity of 50 MW. Standards for SO2 emissions from coal-fired plant in the range 50 to 100 MW will not, however, be set until 1990 and, when they are set, that will take into account the availability, or otherwise, of low-sulphur coal.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

As my hon. Friend knows, I have asked several parliamentary questions about this directive as I have a number of oil refineries in my constituency. As a result of his meeting on 4 May with the UK Petroleum Industry Association, can he say whether that association is now satisfied with the part of the directive that relates to existing plants, as opposed to new ones?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It was obviously important in our discussions with the UK Petroleum Industry Association to ensure that we took proper account of the operating constraints within the industry. I confirm that we have done that. We have especially taken into account the need for flexibility within the refineries as new plant is added. My hon. Friend referred specifically to existing capacity. I hope that I have satisfied his concern about that.

Negotiations on the directive have been long and protracted. Over the last few months we have worked hard with the German presidency and the Commission to remove the remaining obstacles. That work has borne fruit, and agreement was reached on all the outstanding points at issue at the meetings of the Council of Environment Ministers on 16 and 28 June. Subject to the removal of the United Kingdom parliamentary reserve, the way is now open for adoption at an early date. The directive will provide for substantial, but cost-effective, reductions in pollutants from large combustion plants. I will not disguise from the House the fact that the agreement will be costly for the United Kingdom, but it gives the industries concerned firm targets for their future planning. Above all, we can be proud of the major part that we are playing in reducing European emissions and hence in helping to bring about an end to the acid rain problem. The environment of the Community—and, indeed, that of other European countries—stands to benefit significantly from the agreement. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 12:58 am, 4th July 1988

The Minister has been as skilful today as the Government have been during the past few years when presenting their policies on acid rain. By telescoping all the pollution reduction measures planned until the end of the century, the Government have claimed that their clean-up programme is the second biggest in Europe and that the CEGB is taking substantial steps to deal with the problem. The reality is very different.

We have heard from the Minister some of the old hoary arguments. On the one hand he claims to be taking action on behalf of the Government to deal with the acid rain problems and the emissions of sulphur and nitrogen, and on the other hand he puts forward the old arguments. For example, he says that it is difficult to identify the real cause of forest damage and that it might not be due to SO2 emissions.

In its first report in the previous Parliament the Environment Select Committee said that this was a complex process involving ozone and photosynthesis and that SO2 was a major contributor to forest damage. Until recently, the Government have denied that sulphur emissions from our large combustion plants have contributed significantly to the problems of acid rain. They did what people used to do when the overwhelming evidence that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer was first presented—they denied that there was any real evidence because it was all statistical or circumstantial.

At one stage, some years ago, we thought that the Government would do something about it, the Prime Minister having been buttonholed by Chancellor Kohl and others, but then there was a meeting at Chequers with the Central Electricity Generating Board and Sir Walter Marshall—the longest, dirtiest weekend in history I think it was called—as a result of which the Government backtracked again.

The Government's present claims rest on two false premises. The first is that the United Kingdom has reduced substantially its sulphur emissions since 1970 and is already on target for making major reductions. If there was a 1970 30 per cent. club, they argue, we would he one of its founder members. The second is that their programme is the most expensive, or one of the most expensive, in Europe for cleaning up power station emissions.

Neither claim is really accurate. United Kingdom sulphur emissions have fallen by more than 40 per cent. since 1970 and nearly one quarter since 1980, but they were caused by external factors such as the increased use of natural gas in the 1970s and 1980s, the increased use of nuclear fuel over the same period and the oil price hikes of 1973 and 1979, when United Kingdom SO2 emissions fell by 500,000 and 700,000 tonnes respectively. The major reason was the collapse of United Kingdom manufacturing industry during 1980 and 1981, when SO2 falls of 400,000 and 250,000 tonnes respectively were recorded. The Government have claimed the credit for those external factors, presenting the pollution reduction as the result of successful policies.

The externality of the solution can be seen in what is happening now. The apparent revival of industry led to art increase of 200,000 tonnes in sulphur emissions last year. Worse is in store. The Electricity Council forecasts annual increases in demand for electricity of 1·6 per cent. for the next five years. Greenpeace-sponsored computer modelling indicates that United Kingdom power station emissions of SO2 will increase by 10 per cent. by 1993, falling to their current level only by 1996.

Neither the Department of Energy nor the Department: of the Environment has been able to disprove that projection, dismissing the rise of 200,000 tonnes in sulphur emissions last year as a hiccup—that is twice Norway's output. The Government's estimates, which appear in. Hansard for 2 November 1987, are 3·4 million to 4·2 million tonnes of SO2 by 1990, and 2·6 million to 3·5 million tonnes by 2000. The upper estimates represent a. decrease from 1980 levels of only 10 per cent. by 1990 and 25 per cent. by 2000.

When compared with other European countries, those figures show an extremely small programme. We have still refused, even though we have signed this protocol, to join the 30 per cent. club, despite earlier indications that the Government might be tempted to do that. The members of the club are pledged to reduce emissions or exports of sulphur by 30 per cent. between 1980 and 1993.

The club includes Austria, which is pledged to a 70 per cent. reduction by 1995, Belgium, which is pledged to a 50 per cent. reduction by 1995, and Canada, which is pledged to the same by 1994. The figures for other countries are as follows: Denmark 50 per cent. by 1995, and Finland, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Federal Republic of Germany, Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, the USSR and Ukraine, all 30 per cent. by 1993. Within western Europe the United Kingdom is the largest single emitter of SO2 and we remain so despite what the Government have announced today.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

When the Labour Government commissioned many of the coal-fired power stations, why did they not include sulphur cleaning equipment as part of the programme? It has been left to the Conservative Government to do that.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

It has not been left to the Government. There are 40 major power stations and the Government will retrofit either five or six—the Government are refusing to do it all. If the hon. Gentleman believes that 10 years ago there was the same knowledge and information as there is now about the nature of sulphur emissions and acid rain, he is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Ten years ago neither the hon. Gentleman nor I had even heard of acid rain. Certainly the environmentalists did not have all the information. They expected the SO2 to be dispersed because of the tall stacks policy, but what goes into the air comes down. Within the past six years evidence has been collected and the forest damage in central Europe and the acid damage to lakes and rivers, which has killed large numbers of fish in Scandinavia, has become evident.

Despite the Government's claim that they are going to do something about it, we will remain, after the Government's programme, the largest single emitter of SO2 in western Europe. In 1990 we will still be contributing 20 per cent. to the EEC's SO2 emissions and will contribute 25 per cent. by 1995. In per capita terms, we are the fourth highest SO2 emitter in western Europe, and we shall be the second highest in 1995.

We are one of only five western European countries that are still refusing to join and sign the 30 per cent. club protocol. We are in league with Spain, Portugal, Greece and Eire. We should all be ashamed of ourselves. The environmental consequences of SO2 emissions are important to us as well as to the forests of central Europe and the lakes and waterways of Scandinavia. The forest damage in Britain is exactly the same in character and scale as that experienced in West Germany when problems were first revealed there. The environmental damage is similar to that suffered by The Netherlands and Switzerland, which consider that parts of their forest areas are a national catastrophe. According to the November Forestry Commission figures, 55 per cent. of all United Kingdom broadleaf trees and 57 per cent. of conifers had lost more than 10 per cent. of their foliage compared with an ideal tree.

We are facing increasingly serious problems with the acidification of our surface waters. Greenpeace has identified 80 acidified or vulnerable water bodies. Areas vulnerable to water acidification cover more than half of Scotland, nearly half of Northern Ireland, parts of Northumberland, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Sussex, Shropshire, Hampshire, Cornwall, Somerset, Devon, Dyfed, Gwynedd, Mid-Glamorgan and West Glamorgan. The level of pollution falling on those waters is so great that it is stripping them of their buffering capacity. Unless deposition is reduced by 50 to 60 per cent.—not the 30 per cent. required by the 30 per cent. club—those waters will continue to deteriorate. An authoritative independent scientist has said: Few water bodies in acid, susceptible areas south of Loch Ness, will be immune from acidification. The Government now herald a new initiative because they have signed the large combustion plants directive. Under the revised directive, the current programme of one 2,000 MW desulphurisation by 1993 will remain the same, and in addition to the two already to be desulphurised by 1998, another two will have to be desulphurised to meet the terms of the large combustion plants directive. That is the CEGB estimate. The Department of the Environment talks about desulphurising three, and the CEGB about desulphurising two. Will the Minister tell us which is correct? The CEGB estimates that the extra cost of meeting the directive will be about £400 million, whereas the Department estimates it at £600 million.

It is difficult for outsiders to work out how many stations will need to be cleaned up to comply with the directive, because we are not allowed access to the assumptions made by the CEGB. The Minister has given us some information today. It would be useful if he could give us more and disclose what proportion of nuclear supply is assumed and how much low-sulphur coal will be imported. It is an important question, not just for acid rain, but for the future of the coal industry. How much of an increase in gas-powered turbines is planned? Without knowledge of those assumptions it is impossible for outsiders to calculate whether the CEGB or the Department is right.

From an environmental point of view, it is important to emphasise that acid rain will not be stopped by the Government's new reduction programme, although that is likely to be the thrust of their propaganda. They are likely to say that they will stop or control it. On Saturday 18 June, in the Daily Express, Lord Caithness said: Lochs in the eastern highlands of Scotland and English lakes will improve quite quickly. The newspaper said that people would soon see the results of the clean-up campaign. That is simply not true. The 1986 figures for sulphur emissions were already 20 per cent. below the 1980 figure, so that the consequence of the Government's negotiations is to maintain the status quo until the mid-1990s.

A Greenpeace review of the scientific literature—"Acid Waters"—says that current levels of sulphur deposition are removing the buffering capacity of sensitive lakes across the United Kingdom, and for the next seven to eight years acid lakes will remain acid and sensitive waters will continue to deteriorate. Environmental improvements will take nearly a decade to be seen, and even then will not be seen everywhere as the proposed reduction programme is not big enough. A Government who care about the environment would not be hailing as a triumph the programme that will clean up five out of 40 power stations over 10 years.

The mechanics of the large combustion plant directive have been left vague. After the EC meeting the Department issued a statement saying: We intend to leave it to the Electricity Industry to decide precisely how the reductions are to be achieved. Planning for that will presumably take place over the next three or four years, but the industry is so transfixed by privatisation that its normal thought processes have become frozen. The mechanism by which this is to be achieved must be spelt out. Will the reductions be imposed legislatively? Will they be negotiated between the two new generating bodies? How will reductions be allocated between them? Leaving those decisions to the industry will mean procrastination.

The United Kingdom will not be dismayed by that. At our suggestion, a clause was inserted in the directive saying that any member states that do not achieve their targets may apply to have the figure varied. That is why the negotiations have been long and protracted: at each stage countries like Britain, but mainly Britain, have been trying to water down proposals from other EC countries. In the absence of governmental directive or a concrete system by which the reductions can be achieved, they are likely to fall by the wayside after privatisation.

Larger reductions than are proposed would be technically feasible, although the Government are spreading the myth that they would not. As the Minister said, 80 per cent. of large plants in West Germany will be dealt with. Eighteen will be retrofitted within 10 years, which is four times the size of the CEGB programme in less time. In Britain, three engineering firms—John Brown, Davy McKee and Babcock Wilcox—have said that they could desulphurise a 2,000 MW power station in between 42 and 48 months. Each company could clear up two stations simultaneously. A number of other companies have also shown an interest. The reduction figures arrived at for the United Kingdom are the result of political expediency, not environmental protection.

The reason for the Government's signing of the directive is to study the ground for privatisation. Greenpeace sees privatisation as a useful opportunity for rocking the boat in favour of greater environmental protection and is taking the line that anyone who buys a polluting power station will sooner or later be faced with the bill for cleaning up the mess. I hasten to add that that is the Opposition's view, too. The Government's signing of the phased directive, although a small improvement on the past, will not remove this financial threat from potential investors. The fact that polluting power stations are being sold will be a major difficulty when the Government come to sell off the electricity supply industry.

I was disappointed by the first report on air pollution by the Select Committee on the Environment. That recently published report gave the Government a get-out. I hope that when we hold a debate on that subject we shall be able to discuss it fully with members of the Committee. One of the anxieties felt by members of the Committee was that which the Minister advanced today—that if we go too far with getting rid of acid rain and cleaning up our power stations, there will be a need to import large quantities of low-sulphur coal, which will harm our coal industry. I do not believe that for one second. There is no need for people in our coal industry to fear clean coal. The best future for coal is clean coal, and desulphurisation will help and encourage the use of more coal-fired, oil-fired and fossil-fuelled power stations.

It suits many people in the electricity supply industry, and the Government, to ignore the problems of acid rain in the hope that others will stigmatise fossil-fuelled power stations as dirty and use that as a justification for more nuclear power. That is a double-dealing way of approaching the matter. Those who are worried about the future of the coal industry would best safeguard that future by campaigning for clean coal, desulphurisation and fluidised bed combustion. Under the Labour party's policy we would have joined the 30 per cent. club long ago and would be well on the way to implementing EEC directives to cut emissions by 60 per cent., not 30 per cent. The Minister admitted that the 20 per cent. reduction by 1993 and the 40 per cent. reduction by 1998 that the directive implies is a reduction in emissions from our major combustion plants, not in our national emissions from all sources of sulphur. That is why the proposals that the Government ask the House to support tonight are inadequate.

Britain's accession to the directive is tardy and inadequate. The current CEGB plans would be wholly inadequate to meet the required targets, even though the Government have agreed to them. Sufficient resources must be allocated to monitoring the new levels and art adequate legislative framework must be established before privatisation.

The secondary environmental effects mentioned by the Minister—fluidised gas desulphurisation, the gypsum problem—must be fully and quickly assessed and reported. The Government should publish their estimates of the scale and cost of desulphurisation before privatisation of the electricity supply industry.

We welcome the minor step forward that the Government have taken by agreeing to the retrofitting of an extra two or three power stations, but five or six out of 40 is not enough. The Government have been back-pedalling and fighting a rearguard action in Europe and elsewhere against conclusive and effective action to deal with sulphur and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and they will still be seen throughout Europe as the dirty young woman of Europe—if that is not to insult the Prime Minister too much. Britain is seen as a dustbin of the world and a major polluter in Europe.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy) 1:19 am, 4th July 1988

We have been delayed in having the debate. I regret the Government's decision to pull out of the debate before the EEC debates and decides on the document. It feels as if we are debating it after the horse has bolted, which is a shame. Looking at the Order Papers for 14 June and 1 July, I find it interesting that the first report from the Environment Committee on air pollution has been demoted from relevance. Perhaps the Minister looked at it and decided that it was more to his liking that it should be deemed irrelevant to the debate, which it is not. Even following the decision, as a country or as Europe, we still have not tackled the problems that we face.

Before we look at the agreements of the Council of Environment Ministers on 16 and 28 June, we must concentrate on exactly what our emission standards should be. Where are we starting from, and where should we go? It is important that we do so because the debate is not about some bleak coal-fired power station or the technicalities of how we go about this; it is about the reality of the gradual pollution of rivers and lakes, the decimation of forests, the erosion of ancient buildings and the poor health of ordinary men and women. It is reported that more than 3·5 million people in Britain drink water with higher levels of aluminium than allowed under European Community regulations … a Water Authorities Association document recently suggested that metal gets into drinking water as a result of acid rain, and provides further important evidence that Alzheimer's disease may be caused by aluminium in drinking water. That has caused considerable fear among ordinary people. Reading the reports and letters in local papers in Cornwall, I know that there is considerable concern about the state of affairs in my part of the country, so the debate is about the real impact of acid rain and the Government's record on its prevention.

In November 1987, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said that few countries are doing more to reduce such emissions and few are likely to match our performance between 1970 and the turn of the century. Yet the truth is that the United Kingdom has continued and is continuing to oppose the 30 per cent. club. It has been on flimsy ground, because the original justification was that it lacked the necessary scientific, ecological, geophysical and economic substantiation. That has now been dropped. The suggestion that the emission reductions target is purely arbitrary has allowed the Government to duck the debate and not take the necessary action. That has been a drastic consequence. If one reads the experts' reports, one sees that many of them already believe that we have left it too late.

Sadly, two weeks ago, the Select Committee on the Environment was left with the option of repeating its recommendation from 1984 that the United Kindom should join the 30 per cent. club. Had we joined it then, we might not now have to bear the label of the "dirty man of Europe" among our European neighbours. Perhaps we would not now have the Duke of Edinburgh speaking publicly about just how unpopular we are in Europe over our apparent refusal to do anything serious about our air pollution.

Many scientists would now say that the reduction required is about 80 to 90 per cent. of SO2 and 75 per cent. of nitrogen oxide. Environmentalists are already suggesting that the 30 per cent. club is out of date. To my mind, it is better than nothing, and the Government will not even give us that. I hope that during the debate hon. Members on both sides of the House will continue to attempt to persuade the Government that the United Kingdom should at least join the 30 per cent. club.

The Select Committee's report states: we have concluded that the CEGB programme is still not enough. The fact remains that the United Kingdom has not even reached the limits proposed by the West Germans of a reduction in SO2 emissions of 70 per cent. by 2003. Instead, we are committed to 60 per cent., which is a small percentage when one considers the overall scientific evidence which suggests that the real target should be in the region of 80 to 90 per cent. In contrast, the West Germans aim to fit pollution control technology to 36 GW in eight years—six times the United Kingdom programme of fitting 6 GW in 10 years.

What about the British public? Do the Government believe that immediate action on acid rain will be unpopular? Perhaps they feel that there is no backing for what we are asking. It appears that British consumers are more than willing to face their responsibility for the safety of our environment. The Harris research centre found that a phenomenal 89 per cent. of its sample was "very" or "fairly" concerned about the acid rain effects of British pollution and 82 per cent. was equally concerned about its effect abroad. In the same poll 72 per cent. thought that our record on this was "poor" or "very poor", and they are in good international company in believing that. The public are also prepared to pay the price of it. Often it is said that the British public will agree to anything, bad or good, but, when faced with the cost, they take a different view. In a Harris poll last year, 84 per cent. were prepared to accept a 5 to 10 per cent. electricity price increase to clean up Britain's acid rain.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

The highest estimate—the CEGB estimate—given to the Environment Select Committee of retrofitting enough power stations to implement the EEC directive was a 10 per cent. increase in electricity charges over 10 years. That is an increase of 1 per cent. a year. The Government have increased electricity prices by 8 per cent. already this year and by next year there will have been a total increase of 15 per cent. to prepare for privatisation. Therefore, cost does not seem to be the real reason why the Government are not taking action.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy)

The hon. Gentleman is right, and he is a little ahead of me. I was about to say that a 5 to 10 per cent. increase is more than we need. If we retrofitted with flue gas desulphurisation units at least a total of 12 power stations, we could halve our sulphur dioxide emissions by 1996 and the cost would be just 40 per cent. of funds generated by already scheduled price increases. That £1,700 million could be added to the £650 million already being spent by the CEGB. It would be a far more useful way of spending those funds that the Government insist the electricity industry raises than fattening the calf for privatisation, as the Government plan. We could not draw a better contrast between the views of the British public and of hon. Members on this side of the House on how public money should be spent and the Government's view that it should be spent on the privatisation of the industry—a limited number of people investing in an industry to make a limited gain.

So far I have painted a relatively bleak picture. There are constructive steps that the Government could take now. Although fitting coal-fired power stations with flue gas desulphurisation units may be part of the answer, we must still deal with the disposal of gypsum produced as a result of that cleaning process. Therefore, the key is to prevent rather than to cure.

Last week an international climate conference in Toronto, called by the Canadian Government, made some constructive recommendations. As reported in The Observer this weekend, one step would mean cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels. The delegates at Toronto last week called for consumption of fossil fuels to be cut by a fifth over the next 17 years. That does not mean embarking on a massive nuclear programme, as the Minister suggested during Question Time this afternoon. The recommendation is clear: The best hope is strict energy conservation. Japan, the world's most successful economy, uses half as much energy per head as the US—and could do even better. Again, the Government's record shows them to be short-sighted, blinkered or perhaps with their hands clapped firmly over their eyes, looking instead at drastic cuts in the budget of the energy efficiency office from £24 million to £15 million.

Another alternative would be to increase clean forms of energy production. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy recently produced a renewable energy strategy paper entitled "The Way Forward." Unfortunately, it would appear that the safe keeping of our environment through clean forms of energy production will have to be developed by the private sector. Millions of pounds are spent on research and development in nuclear power, but the Government have the clear intention of relying on industry to develop and commercialise research into new forms of renewable energy sources. Again, they are ducking out of their responsibilities. The truth is that only Government investment at adequate levels will ensure that we are world leaders in the production of clean and safe sources of energy.

The agreement that we are considering, on the basis of now out-of-date EC documents, has been held back by the Government. Practical measures have been resisted; opportunities have been forgone. In taking note of the documents, we must also note that the Government are moving forward so slowly that, in terms of pollution, we are actually moving backwards.

I can only say that it is a great shame on Ministers and on the country that we are not taking the lead that we should be taking; that we are not living up to our responsibilities; and that in the process we are letting down not only our European neighbours, but ourselves and future generations.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 1:31 am, 4th July 1988

I view with disappointment this small move in the right direction. We have waited for a long time for action to control emissions from coal-fired plants. I was, however, pleased to hear in both the Minister's speech and a brief intervention from the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) a recognition that the pollution in the atmosphere is not emitted only by coal-fired plants. It happens in other parts of the country as well, and is caused by oil and gas plants and also by petrol from cars. But, although those causes are acknowledged, there seems to be no headway in joining the 30 per cent. club, or getting anywhere near it. The responsibility always seems to fall on the shoulders of the big coal-fired power stations and industrial boilers—and, indeed, they are responsible for many such emissions.

I welcomed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). We must recognise, however, that the Drax programme, currently before the Secretary of State for Energy and involving one of the biggest coal-burners in the country, envisages commissioning of the first two out of six units—covering 1,330 MW—in late 1993. We are responding very late to the use of technology that has been around for a considerable time.

The memorandum of 29 June, which the Minister put in the Vote Office, showed clearly that the flue gas desulphurisation and low nitrogen burners would meet United Kingdom targets for sulphur dioxide only in 1993, and for nitrogen dioxide only in 1998. On the future, it uses a quaint phrase, stating that it will be for the industries concerned and Her Majesty's inspectorate to determine the 1998 and 2003 sulphur dioxide targets.

I am not sure whether those decisions should be left in those hands. In my view, the memorandum falls far short of any major commitment for targets for this country to meet, even in the current directive. The responsibility is kept away from Government. In that sense, this is not a very positive response to either the directive or the report by the Select Committee on the Environment—although that was criticised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle.

The Minister has pointed out that the added expense will require a substantial additional effort over and above the existing programme if these further targets are to be met. If the Government's present plans are implemented, those decisions will be taken by newly privatised generators unless they are taken within the next two years. The competition that the Government wish to see will thus be under attack from the legacy of an indifferent response to the problems for a number of years. I do not put that down just to the present Government, although I think that it is fair to say that they are the first Government who can be accused of sitting on technology which could have been fitted to both new and existing power stations many years before programmes such as that proposed for Drax actually came before the Secretary of State. Previous Governments also dodged the problems of damage caused by emissions, but the present Government have not only known of the damage but have had the necessary technology. They could have done far more in the past eight years before these proposals were brought forward.

We are told that in the new privatised electricity industry competition will come from the introduction of' small generators. There will be big G and little G, but the real competition will be from small generators, although there must be severe pressure on that concept, especially in relation to coal-fired generators, in view of the directives before us. The Government memorandum rightly estimates that it will cost two and a half to three times as much to remove one tonne of sulphur dioxide from a 50 MW plant as from a 500 MW plant, so the introduction of small plants will not be so easy as the Government appear to believe. In that sense, their plans seem somewhat contradictory.

Another way of proceeding is for the Government to ensure that research and development on clean coalburn progresses from its present stage. I trust that the Minister has been briefed on the joint programme, as it currently still is, by the CEGB and British Coal on the pressurisecl fluidised bed combustion project in south Yorkshire. The first stage of that project has made a major contribution to developing the clean coal technology that we have needed for so long, but the next stage is under enormous pressure, and if the funding does not come quickly it is likely that the next stage will not take place. The CEGB has withdrawn its support for the project, apparently on the ground that: it wishes to concentrate its research and development on larger schemes of 900 MW or above. The Minister will be aware also that British Coal is being asked to break even. In those circumstances, the current prospects for the second phase are not good. That is a great pity as what has been achieved at Grimethorpe in south Yorkshire is an even more efficient version of the pressurised fluidised bed combustion known as the topping cycle, which is a British invention. The work has been totally British, although some foreign money has been invested. The project is under threat.

Is the Minister prepared to ask the Secretary of State for Energy to support the current application by British Coal for further funding of the project? I should like the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Energy to take action, rather than to utter the words that are so often spoken in these debates. I hope that the Minister will take up the challenge to discuss this matter with the Secretary of State for Energy. The hon. Gentleman nods his head. I remind him of the Government's response to the report of the Select Committee on Environment. Paragraph 3.36 states: The Government agrees with the Committee that pressurised fluidised bed combustion (pfbc) technology offers excellent prospects for emission control at relatively low costs. There should be positive Government action to ensure that the second phase at Grimethorpe gets off the ground and the technology is further developed.

The 29 March memorandum referred to the lack of technology already installed and to the sulphur content of coal. It said that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and industry were considering implementing a sliding scale for sulphur emissions from power stations—from 30 per cent. for 100 MW to 90 per cent. for 500 MW or more. The matter was under discussion, and I should like to know whether the Minister has anything further to tell us.

The memorandum referred to the possibility of limiting the diversion of high sulphur coal to plant below 100 MW. The Minister mentioned the possibility of imposing restrictions on smaller plants and the associated expenses. Exactly who is considering this possibility? How does this square with comments on attacking emissions from large coal-fired plants?

Has the Department carried out a study into the sulphur content of coal now being produced and of known coal reserves? British Coal publishes regional figures annually. The sulphur content in opencast coal areas can be as high as 2·3 per cent. and as low as 0·7 per cent. in Scottish deep mine coal areas. It is ironic that coal production is decreasing in areas with low sulphur coal. The average sulphur content of British industrial coal is deemed to be twice as high as that in Scottish deep mine coal areas. We should consider exploiting those reserves to the full.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood , Clydesdale

My hon. Friend has referred to the low sulphur content of Scottish coal. Is he aware that tonight the Prime Minister voted for a Bill that will increase imports of coal from places such as South Africa? Is he aware that Britain imports from South Africa and Colombia coal with a high sulphur content, while there is a threat to close the Scottish deep mine coalfields? Does my hon. Friend agree that that is contradictory?

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend makes a good point about what is likely to happen.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

He is the intellectual wing of the Labour party.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The hon. Gentleman is welcome to take part in the debate to discuss both employment and the damage that can be done by burning coal with a high sulphur content. We are trying to debate the matter in a way that will help Britain and the world environment. Therefore, I hope that he will take part in the debate or at least listen to what is said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) is right. It is obvious that high sulphur coal will be cheaper, because it has its disadvantages, especially for countries that are trying to restrict emissions from coal-fired power stations. If there is no restriction on the purchase of cheap coal, the scenario that he paints could occur, and there would be little that any Government could do, even if they knew it were happening, or, in this case, little that they would do. My hon. Friend makes that point well.

While we have deep mine reserves in Scotland of coal with a low sulphur content, I wonder why we are giving up mining it to go in for opencast mining, or even deep mining in other areas where the sulphur content of the coal is higher. If a study has not been carried out into British coal and its sulphur content, we should look at it in some detail to make sure that we are exploiting the right type of coal that could be used at this stage until all coal-fired power stations are fitted, if possible, with filters to prevent the emissions escaping.

It is obvious from what we have heard tonight that the Government's proposals to control emissions from large combustion plants, while they meet some of the future standards in the short term, in the long term are not likely to meet targets. That does not give us much faith that they will be able to do so. Post-privatisation, it will be up to the privatised generating companies, which are likely to be more concerned about short-term profit than about the long-term future of the environment. In those circumstances, I should have liked to have seen something more in these papers, and a better response from the Government than this. I have little faith that the Bill that will be introduced in the next Session to implement privatisation of electricity will contain any regulation that will protect the environment because it will be drawn up by a Government who seem to prefer to leave matters to the market.

I remind the House and the Minister about the major Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference in 1984 on the environment and the economy. It concluded: Continued environmental improvement and sustained economic growth are essential, compatible and inter-related policy objectives … The environment and the economy, if properly managed, are mutually reinforcing and are supportive of and supported by technological innovation. That is something that we seem to have forgotten since 1984, because we have not come forward in great haste to solve the problems that we have as a nation been creating with atmospheric pollution for many years.

Coal, which has been an energy source in this country for generations, if not centuries, and will be for many generations and centuries in the future, is essential. The only way we can ensure its future is by taking more positive action against the pollution that we have been putting into the skies for many generations. I hope that, if the Minister cannot refer at great length to this now, he will discuss it in great detail with the Secretary of State for the Environment so that Government action in the EEC can be more positive than it has been.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East 1:49 am, 4th July 1988

I will try to assist hon. Members by answering as many of the points as possible. There were one or two technical aspects on coal and specific energy questions raised by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) that I shall take up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if my expertise on that aspect is not as competent as his. He can rest assured that I will come back to him on the specific points regarding energy that are not within my remit. The hon. Gentleman will be the first to accept that my main concern has been to ensure that emission reductions are achieved. However, there are a number of points on which I can assist the hon. Gentleman.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about clean coal and the joint programme with the CEGB and British Coal in south Yorkshire. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's strength of feeling on that matter. I shall be raising the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, because I feel that there are important environmental consequences in that programme which need to be taken further in discussions. The hon. Gentleman was right to underline a point made in an intervention by his hon Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) with regard to the directive not encompassing NOx and SO2 emissions. We need to ensure that we do not look at the debate in isolation from the important work that must continue, not least with regard to vehicle emissions. During the negotiations the other night I was involved for four or five hours on the small car directive. It was important to reach a decision.

I should say to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) that I regret the fact that an earlier debate was not possible. He will recall that the House was weary, after many hours of debate, but it would have assisted me in preparing for my negotiations at the European Council because the issue was alluded to during the negotiations as a result of the work done by my noble Friend Lord Caithness.

On the point about who will decide the necessary reductions and how they will be acheived, it will be for the industries, such as the electricity industry, and the pollution inspectorate to determine appropriate means of meeting the targets. The important thing is that we have undertaken the commitment to emission reductions and we must look to the precise administrative arrangements. There are no plans to change the current general arrangements whereby operators are under a statutory obligation to use the best practical means for preventing emissions to air of noxious or offensive substances and for rendering harmless or inoffensive such substances as may be emitted.

Some detailed legislative changes may result from the directive. However, I envisage that that will occur primarily not within the proposed privatisation legislation, but in air pollution legislation. We will have to look in detail at the changes that may be required.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

We believe that some detailed legislative changes may be important, but, as the hon. Member for Bootle knows, we are involved in a current review of air pollution legislation and I will take on hoard whatever intervention he wishes to make.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

I have heard rumours on the subject. Is it correct that it will be announced in the Queen's Speech that in the next Session of Parliament there will be legislation to update pollution control and to deal with environmental issues?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I made it clear to the House that we are currently reviewing the air pollution legislation. The time at which that comes before the House is yet to be decided. The important point is that the review is under way. The implications of the directive with regard to some detailed changes make that review more important in legislative terms. I am sorry that I cannot assist the hon. Gentleman with the precise timing. No doubt he would not expect me to do so.

The hon. Member for Truro raised the issue of aluminium and Alzheimer's disease. There have been recent claims linking aluminium in water supplies with Alzheimer's disease. It is important to recognise the effect that acid rain, by acidifying surface waters, has on aluminium levels in drinking water. I cannot comment on the medical aspects of the problem. However, a further comprehensive report is coming later in the year, which I have already announced to the House. It will require detailed consideration. Fears about this matter can be allayed because Alzheimer's disease is believed to be related to other factors. Over 90 per cent. of one's daily intake of aluminium comes from foodstuffs, not water. That is not to minimise the importance of the debate or the need for full and comprehensive medical assessment, but to put it into an important perspective.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy)

I am sure that hon. Members will welcome the fact that the Minister will be making a further report to the House about this matter. Will that cover the different levels of the problem throughout the country? Clearly the problem concerns people in specific counties.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

We are considering that matter in detail, not least because of its implications for different water authorities and their treatment processes. This is not a matter for over-reaction. It needs careful consideration in the light of the further evidence. There are no medical grounds for concern. It is accepted that the genetic element plays a large part in Alzheimer's disease. Some people are more likely to develop it than others.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

Surely the Minister accepts that aluminium in water is not good for people and that it would be wise to reduce it?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

The Government would not actively support an intake of aluminium well in excess of that used in water treatment. The Government's medical advisers have made it clear that there is no perceived medical risk as a result of the use of aluminium in water supplies. As to senile dementia, one must bear in mind that well over 90 per cent. of one's aluminium intake comes from foodstuffs. All these points are being borne in mind in the further consideration of the substantive report. The problem will be carefully considered in detail and we shall report to the House in the usual manner.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood , Clydesdale

Given that 90 per cent. of our aluminium intake comes from foodstuffs, should we not be doing everything we can to reduce our aluminium intake, whether it be in food or water? The Government cannot say that 90 per cent. of our intake is from food so they will ignore water. We should be doing all that we can to reduce all intakes of aluminium because we know that it is harmful to health.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

There is no medical danger in the consumption of a small amount of aluminium or any of the other minerals used in water treatment. The degree and amount of consumption are important factors. The link between aluminium in water and Alzheimer's disease, which was first suggested by the Norwegians, was such that research was increased. We are considering the results of that research and will report back to the House.

The central point of the debate has been the 30 per cent. club. I agree that the 30 per cent. club is out of date. A club should be set up on an arbitrarily chosen date because the base date makes a significant difference. The 30 per cent. club requires a pledge to reduce national SO2 emissions by 1993 to 30 per cent. below the 1980 level. United Kingdom sulphur emissions fell by 1·5 million tonnes, or 24 per cent., between 1970 and 1980. In 1987 we were about 40 per cent. below the 1970 level and 20 per cent. below the 1980 level. To illustrate how differently other countries are placed within the European Community, including the United Kingdom, sulphur emissions rose by 1·5 million tonnes between 1970 and 1980. Our partners' emissions rose by twice the amount that ours fell. Large plant emissions fell substantially between 1970 and 1980, although not as much as total emissions. The important consideration is that there is a joint commitment to reductions throughout Europe.

I was asked how many retrofits were involved. For the first time we have a commitment based on a binding percentage reduction rather than a specific capital programme. It will be for the industries concerned, in conjunction with Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution, to determine the best means of meeting the targets. It would not be possible to estimate precisely the number of retrofits for a programme extended into the next century, but it represents about double our present efforts. As has rightly been said, the CEGB estimates that there could possibly be as many as three extra retrofits.

Privatisation would not affect the United Kingdom's ability—indeed, its need—to meet its commitments. Successor generator companies will remain under the statutory obligation to use the best practical means for preventing emissions, as do current private sector operators of large combustion plants such as oil companies.

The environment of Britain, the Community and Europe in general stands to benefit substantially from agreement on the directive, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 11642/83, 5124/85 and the proposals described in the un-numbered Explanatory Memorandum from the Department of the Environment of 9th June 1988 and the Supplementary Explanation Memorandum of 29th June 1988 on the limitation of emissions of pollutants into the air from large combustion plants; and calls upon the Government to support the agreement reached at the meetings of the Council of Environment Ministers on 16th and 28th June 1988 on proposals for a European Community Directive.