Today we focus our concern on climate change, but 40 years ago it was acid rain and forest die-back that dominated our air and environment debate. In 1977, a new measurement programme showed that the sulphur landing in Scandinavia was far greater than the countries were producing. Industrial coal burning and westerly winds meant that the UK was Europe’s largest exporter of sulphur air pollution. Moving power generation to the countryside and building tall chimneys had reduced local air pollution but did not prevent sulphur being transported over thousands of kilometres.
This was at the height of the cold war. Warsaw Pact countries offered 30% reductions in their sulphur emissions and watched as the western allies were split. The UK was isolated and Canadian provinces were pitched against upwind industrial states in the US.
Redolent of climate change denial today, UK scientists and civil servants placed emphasis on the uncertainties rather than on what was known; they trivialised forest damage and the impacts of fish dying in acidified rivers. A Nature editorial suggested that the UK could offer crushed limestone to be sprinkled in Norwegian rivers and that the Norwegians would be foolish if they did not accept. Other articles attacked the concept that industry in one country should take responsibility for damage in another.
Finally the Thatcher government conceded. The resultant agreements and the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol still play a central role in curbing our air pollution. The human health implications were not sufficiently understood in the 1970s and 1980s, but the resulting reductions are estimated to prevent around 80,000 premature deaths each year in the EU – an annual gain of around $250bn (£184bn), or 1.4% of EU GDP.