UK knew of problems with CFC substitutes

Independent, 28 April 1993:

Michael Howard attempts to rewrite environmental history (letter, 27 April). The UK Government has been well aware of the problems with CFC substitutes for some years but, far from seeking to limit their use, it has been actively promoting their supposed benefits.

While it is true that HCFC 22 is far less damaging to the ozone layer than fully halogenated CFCs, it is still a powerful greenhouse gas and would, if uncontrolled, contribute 15 per cent of global warming due to CO2 alone by the year 2030. Similarly, HFC 134A, ICI’s favoured CFC substitute, would contribute 15 per cent of global warming due to CO2 alone by the year 2100.

This information was available in 1988 on the occasion of an international conference on ozone depletion that I organised in London. The UK Government was aware of these data, because the conference was opened by Virginia Bottomley and attended by civil servants from the Department of the Environment. In addition, the information has been published subsequently and sent direct to the Cabinet Office (see, for example, the Lancet of 15 April, 1989).

However, some governments exhibit even less responsibility than the UK’s. For example, the Indian government is proposing to de-license firms producing cars, fridges and air-conditioning equipment, the latter two being heavy users of CFCs. Clearly, by removing such industries from government control, it seeks to avoid all legal requirements imposed by any international agreement in the field of air pollution or ozone depletion.

Well done, UK! By holding up progress for five years, you have allowed India time to escape its international obligations.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire


Britain’s environmental isolation

The Guardian, 26 April 1993:

Your report that Britain stands alone in resisting an EC energy tax (April 24) typifies this Government’s approach to environmental issues.  In July 1991 I met Professor William Stuart, chief scientific adviser to the cabinet, and submitted a 40-point action plan to the UK government to combat global warming.

These were all the measures that could have been implemented over the past two years.  Twenty points dealt with reducing CO2 emissions, and five points each for renewables, methane, tropospheric (ground level) ozone and CFCs or their substitutes, all potential greenhouse gases.

Recently I requested a further meeting to ascertain progress.   This request was refused.  Instead, I was advised to submit the action plan as a response to the discussion document put out by the Department of the Environment.  Although this is entitled “Climate Change”, it deals only with emissions of CO2.  Other greenhouse gases are ignored.  In addition, I identified those items where there has been progress (plus 1 point), no progress (zero points), or active opposition by the UK government (minus 1 point), over the past two years.

The government’s score for combatting CO2 emissions is minus 2 out of 20, and the total score is 0 out of 40.  By any standards this is an appalling result what many people have long suspected: that this government has no more intention of implementing a policy on global warming than it has of implementing an energy strategy, or an integrated transport policy.

Why is it therefore that the UK has such an unenlightened attitude to the problem of global warming in particular, and environmental issues in general?  The answer must be cultural, at least in part.  Yet the public are reasonably well informed compared with countries in southern Europe, and British children are particularly well educated on environmental issues.

The media must accept its share of responsibility.  With a few notable exceptions, most journalists are too busy, too lazy or too ignorant to brief themselves properly, and when they do produce decent copy, as likely or not the editor decides it is not sufficiently newsworthy.

But the worst offenders are the MPs.  There were few, if any, with a scientific degree, yet the Government has consistently refused to set up an independent body to advise them, and the standard of debate, at least in the House of Commons, is a national disgrace.  This means that right-wing zealots such as Theresa Gorman can pontificate on environmental issues without any scientific support whatsoever.

When participating last year on Any Questions, she clearly had no idea of the difference between ozone depletion and global warming: yet no one on the programme even noticed.  With representatives such as this, it is hardly surprising that our environmental policies are in such a mess.  It would all be laughable, were it not that the issues are so deadly serious.

(Dr) Robin Russell-Jones
The Old Cottage
Wexham Street
Stoke Poges, Bucks