This study evaluates the problem of acid rain in Europe, and specifically the international dimension of the European acid-rain situation. In North America, acid rain has complicated relations between two nations, the United States and Canada. In Europe, where a dozen countries are involved, the international-relations aspect of the situation is correspondingly more important and complex. Proposals for solving the international acid-rain problem are set forth on a European Community and a United Nations level.
REVIEW OF THE PROBLEM
During the past 20 years, the unwanted side-effects of industrial development, in the form of pollution of the natural environment, have been a subject of increasing concern throughout the industrialized world. Pollution of air, water, and soil have all been subjected to greater attention. The deleterious effects of industrial pollution range from the aesthetic – air pollution in Athens has sharply increased the deterioration of ancient Greek relics (Rosenberg, 1987) – to public health concerns over the links of pollution to disease and the overall impact of deterioration of the environment.
Concern over air pollution originally focused on carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbon pollutants. The concern over water pollution was largely with toxins that were released directly into water by industrial plants.
More recently, however, a major source of attention has been the effects of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that are released into the atmosphere, are trapped by moisture in the air, and fall to earth as “acid rain” (Seideman, 1986). While acid rain is the common name used, these substances also fall as other forms of acid precipitation, such as snow (Boyle, 1983, p. 11). Each year, approximately 130 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 53 million tons of nitrogen oxides are pumped into the atmosphere (Boyle, 1983, pp. 11-12).
These substances are poisonous, but they appear in the atmosphere in low concentrations. However, their effects are magnified when they are concentrated as acid rain. Particles of these chemicals act as condensation nuclei for water vapor in the atmosphere, causing water (or ice) droplets to form around them. In effect, the particles cause an unintended and deleterious form of “cloud seeding.”
Moisture also has an effect on the particles. In the presence of water, for example, sulfur dioxide dissolves to produce intensely corrosive sulfuric acid. The oxides of nitrogen behave in a similar way. These same acids are often used in industrial processes, for example to “etch” metals. They occur in lower concentration in acid rain, but have the same effects. Falling on forests, acid rain “etches” away at treetops, damaging the trees’ growth. Running off into streams and lakes, the acids reach concentrations that kill fish. In Sweden alone, fish in 1,500 lakes have been killed by acid rain (Boyle, 1983, p. 14).
INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION OF THE PROBLEM
While some sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are distributed throughout the atmosphere, most of it is precipitated out as acid rain within a few hundred to a couple of thousand miles of the source. Thus, most acid rain falls in a “footprint” downwind of major industrial areas. The damage is relatively concentrated and visible, while the sources of damage are readily identified, at least in a general geographical sense.
Because wind and rain do not respect national boundaries, acid rain has become an international problem – not a general, global issue with ill-defined villains and victims, but a specific issue between nations whose industries produce these substances, and nations where the resulting acid rain falls. For example, in North America acid rain has become a major bilateral issue between the United States and Canada (Demott, 1986).
In Europe, where acid rain can cross not one international boundary, but several, acid rain is a still more complex multilateral issue (Hordijk, 1987). In 1981, for example, the West German magazine “der Spiegel” reported on tree-diebacks caused by acid rain in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France, as well as in West Germany (Boyle, 1983, p. 74). Acid rain produced by industries in one European country may fall in several others, while the acid rain that falls on a given country may be produced in several others.
The list in the Spiegel article indicates the full dimension of the European acid-rain problem. Both the Western allies and the East bloc are affected, so that a full solution will require cooperation among states with divergent political and economic systems (Hordijk, 1987). At the same time, acid rain is a domestic issue in several countries. West Germany, with Europe’s greatest concentration of heavy industry in the Ruhr Valley, is a major culprit – yet the West Germans, who are deeply attached to surviving natural environments in the country, such as the Black Forest, are among those most concerned about acid rain (Boyle, 1983, p. 75).
PROPOSALS RESPONDING TO THE INTERNATIONAL PROBLEM
As noted, a full, Europe-wide solution to the acid rain problem will require cooperation transcending the boundaries not only of individual nations but of the international power-blocs. Only the United Nations has the necessary scope; yet the United Nations, with its global range of concern, is in some ways too broad.
On a more purely regional level, the European Economic Community (EEC, or “Common Market”) includes the major Western European industrial powers, and is well-positioned to develop partial solutions for the Western European area, while also establishing a model that could then be applied more widely.
A workable international approach to the acid-rain crisis must meet the following criteria:
1. It must establish a more definite picture of the international European acid-rain situation, an overall picture that is still largely lacking (Hordijk, 1987). We need the best possible estimates of where acid-rain pollution is being produced, where it is falling, and the type and degree of damage it is doing.
2. It must define standards and criteria for correction and compensation. By correction we mean measures (such as smokestack “scrubbing”) to reduce the output of acid-rain particles. By compensation we mean both money compensation for damage done and measures taken to restore environments that have been damaged by acid rain.
3. It must establish a machinery for settlement of claims and enforcement of standards. The normal channels of international legal action are much too slow and cumbersome to respond to this need. An acid-rain agency must have sufficient regulatory and enforcement authority to produce rapid and substantial action.
To meet these requirements, the following proposals are made, respectively for the European Economic Community and for the United Nations.
European Economic Community: An Environmental Commission should be established, first to carry out a detailed study of the problem and then to put a response into action. It is important that “study” not be used as an excuse to indefinitely put off an active response. We should impose a time framework, possibly as follows:
Phase 1) two years for initial set-up of the Commission and for completion of a detailed study of the European acid-rain problem and its effects.
Phase 2) two years for development of a detailed action plan. This phase should include dissemination of the findings of Phase 1, and public hearings on the acid-rain issue, both internationally and on a local level in individual countries and regions. These public meetings are to have a twofold goal: to educate the public and focus attention on the scope of the problem, and to allow all interested parties – from industrialists to sports-fishermen – to have an input in shaping the regulatory and enforcement mechanism. Unless all concerned participate in the dialogue, it will prove impossible to establish a system that everyone can accept and adhere to. Business representatives, for instance, tend to minimize the impact of acid rain (Brown, 1986). Yet if industry views are completely ignored, any resulting guidelines are liable to become an unenforceable “dead letter.”
Phase 3) one year. A Europe-wide conference will be called to formally hammer out the permanent charter of the Commission, which must then be adopted into law by a majority of the national participants. To avoid a “veto” by a single nation, the Commission should have a strong charter, tying continued international trade and other benefits of European Community membership to adherence to the Commission once a majority has endorsed it.
This program then anticipates a five-year process leading to a permanent Commission, with full regulatory, compensatory, and enforcement powers to oversee reduction of acid rain within the Western European region. United Nations: The United Nations should lend its general support to the European initiative. Specifically, a U.N. working group of Western and Eastern European nations should be established to participate in the Commission’s work and in the enabling negotiations. The goal is optimally to bring Eastern Europe in from the beginning, while the minimum goal is to keep East-West lines of communication open, to allow for future broadened participation.
At the end of the five-year period, the U.N. working group should report to the General Assembly on the European experience, to serve as a model or basis on which the U.N. can then seek to develop a world-wide solution to the acid-rain problem.
Acid rain is a growing problem, and a difficult international problem because it crosses international borders, but is not so diffuse that specific offenders and victims cannot be identified. The proposals above are a basis for tackling the acid-rain problem on a Europe-wide basis.