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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 March 2007, 15:46 GMT
Did we fix it?
Baby pandas

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Climate change dominates the agenda now, but what happened to the environmental causes of the 1970s, 80s and 90s - have these all been resolved now?

Today the green cause celebre is global warming and how best to repair the damage already done. But we hear far less about the eco-campaigns of years gone by - the plight of the panda bear, or the devastation caused by acid rain or Dutch elm disease. Are these problems on the mend, or have we all just moved on?


Good news: Emissions causing acid rain in Europe have plummeted since 1980.

Bad news: They are rising in many parts of Asia and in Europe the damage done by acid rain is still a problem.

In the mid-to-late-1980s the insidious threat of acid rain crept into news headlines. Even children came to be terrified about the killer rain wiping out fish and forests.

Sulphur and nitrogen dioxide emissions were drifting hundreds of miles from industrial centres and chewing up great stretches of countryside. The offenders were industry, power generation and motorists.

Acid rain
Acid rain killed fish, destroyed trees and terrified children

Although much of the worst damage was in parts of Germany and central Europe, in a cruel irony, the lesser polluters of Scandinavia also saw forests damaged and "dead" lakes.

As with so many eco-scares, a link between emissions and damage had been made many years before, as early as the 60s. And even as the general public learned of this deadly threat to the environment in the 80s, work was well underway to combat it.

By 1979, the first international treaty had been signed and by the time UK newspapers had got hold of the issue, there was a momentum towards change.

The use of catalytic converters in cars, of flue gas desulphurisation - a process whereby sulphur is turned into neutral calcium sulphates - in power plants, and the switch to low-sulphur forms of coal and to natural gas, were cutting emissions.

According to the Swedish NGO Secretariat on Acid Rain, land-based sulphur emissions in Europe dropped from 53m tonnes in 1980 to 14m in 2003.

Shipping problem

In 1990, headlines about acid rain were a near-daily occurrence. Now mentions are few and far between, with many stories referring to programmes to revive stretches of freshwater systems by neutralising them with lime.

The problem of rising emissions from sulphur in ships' fuel and the economic boom in Asia has also provided a spike in pollution.

Secretariat director Christer Agren says the campaigning and public concern in the 80s helped tackle the problem.

"You had big information campaigns in the 80s. The green movement helped. But the impact doesn't stop. It will still take many decades for the soil to be neutralised."

In Scandinavia the damage was not as severe as some forecast, although there are many areas where biodiversity in forests and lakes was badly affected.

"Calling them dead lakes is a bit dramatic, but it makes a good headline."


Bad news: The hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic is near the worst it has ever been.

Good news: By 2070 it could be largely fixed.

There had been suspicions of a link between chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and damage to the ozone layer, the band of three-atom oxygen that protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation, in the 70s. Some had even posited that exhaust from Concorde could be causing problems.

But it took until 1985, when three scientists from the British Antarctic Survey found a big hole in the layer, for things to really get going. Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner and John Shanklin had made a discovery that was to catch the public's imagination.

Hole in the ozone layer
CFCs were very easy to give up... fortunately
More importantly, despite small disagreements, the international community did a pretty solid job of tackling the problem.

Professor Ian Colbeck, reader in aerosol science at Essex University, says: "It was relatively straightforward. Everyone agreed to it, with the science. You didn't get anybody suggesting it wasn't CFCs. The US government were onboard. There are still lots of CFCs that get into the atmosphere but it's at a much lower rate than in the mid-70s."

The US had been moving away from CFCs in aerosols since then, and fridge coolants were also soon being replaced. And McDonald's trumpeted its removal of CFCs from its foam packaging.

By 1987 the Montreal Protocol pledged a host of countries to reduce CFC usage.

Eye on the sky

Former UN head Kofi Annan described the protocol as "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date".

Prof Alan Rodger, head of science programmes at the British Antarctic Survey, says the protocol has now achieved what it intended.

"The size of the ozone hole has got as big as it's likely to get. Within the next 10 years we should have clearly turned the corner. The science was agreed pretty quickly. What was more impressive was that the politics was also agreed quickly."

Despite CFC usage dropping away, scientists in the Antarctic will continue to monitor the stratosphere for damage. Forever.


Bad News: Pandas remain endangered and their habitat is still being destroyed.

Good news: There are 40% more giant pandas in the wild than were thought to exist in the 80s.

The image of a baby panda could melt even the hardest animal-indifferent heart. For the environmental activists of the WWF, the bear is their badge and symbol of their work.

Pandas in captivity
Pandas have become an emblem for the conservation movement
When WWF started its panda campaign in 1980, the loss of habitat to expanding human population and industry was a microcosm of the threat civilisation posed to the environment. If we allowed something so photogenic to become extinct, what hope was there for humanity - or so the media seemed to suggest.

News coverage was replete with the threats of deforestation and poaching, as well as captive pandas apparent indifference to procreation.

But the WWF's lobbying and tugging of the heartstrings was not without effect.

After years of increasing nature reserves and cracking down on hunting of pandas, the Chinese government announced in October that the provinces of Sichuan and Gansu would be establishing 1.6m hectares of protected areas in the Minshan Mountains.

Almost half of all wild pandas are in this area, but the WWF warns that threats from overpopulation, logging and agriculture remain.


Bad news: Dutch Elm Disease is still around and may be for a long while yet.

Good news: There are still some elm trees left.

In the 70s and 80s, the English landscape was under attack from a foreign invader.

A disease that had first affected the UK in the 20s returned in the form of a new and deadly fungus spread by bark beetles that arrived in a shipment of elm logs.

Elm tree
The removal of elm trees caused many a misty eye
Within a decade about 20m elms out of an estimated UK elm population of 30m were dead. By the 90s, the number lost was probably well over 25m, Forestry Commission research suggests. It was in that decade that young elms started to reappear, only for the disease to return in many areas.

The Forestry Commission believes it will reappear in cycles for many years to come.

But the work of campaigners in pressing for money to tackle the effect of the disease was not without success. In some areas of the country, notably Brighton, mature elms live on thanks to the work of arboriculturists.


Good news: Industry and the government have decided how best dispose of the waste.

Bad news: But it could take decades and campaigners still oppose it.

In the 80s, there was a two-pronged attack on nuclear power. While CND attacked the immorality of nuclear weapons, produced using plutonium from nuclear power stations, green activists accused the industry of being a time bomb.

But as the UK has not started work on a new major nuclear site since 1988, the issue temporarily dropped off the public radar.

Now, the debate about climate change has reinvigorated the issue. Many are pressing for a new generation of nuclear power plants to help cut carbon emissions, and the antis are warming up their loudspeakers.

Nuclear power? No thanks badge
Some back nuclear power as a way to cut carbon emissions
Gaia theorist James Lovelock, and the government's chief scientific adviser Sir David King, are among the high-profile proponents of nuclear power.

Dr Paul Howarth, director of research at Manchester University's Dalton Nuclear Institute, is also a believer. He admits that in the past, the pioneering nature of nuclear power meant it was not as well regulated as it should have been, but that environmental stewardship has improved.

It is time it shed its image problem, he says. "In the past it has been an industry where energy generation was associated with the military programme, to produce plutonium. Electricity generation was a bit of a by-product. In the early days it wasn't as well regulated."

But waste still remains the crux. Only last year did the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management finally recommend "geological disposal", the burial of waste deep underground. The government backed the proposals in October. The debate has been going on in earnest since the 70s at an agonisingly slow pace.

"It has been put off and put off. It has been one of those tricky issues," Dr Howarth says.

As the government has said no area will have a nuclear dump foisted upon them, the waste could remain stored at nuclear plants around the UK for some years longer. That is grist to the mill of those opposing the new generation of plants.

Jean McSorley, nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace, is an opponent of "geological disposal" and believes the difficulties of dealing with the waste are one of the reasons not to go back to nuclear.

"The industry has a momentum of its own. I don't know if many ordinary people support nuclear power."

Send us your comments using the form below.

As a child of the 80s (1981 to be exact) I remember being terrified of acid rain, I remember being made to feel guilty of man killing pandas, I remember the furore over nuclear power... however by the time to ozone layer kicked off I was beginning to be desensitised to the barriage or "The end is nigh!" stories...

Now, as an adult with an education I know not to listen too intently to the news when talking on matters which involve more than one variable!
James B, Sheffield, UK

Is this not a reflection on the media who choose to publicise certain problems. At the moment the whole climate change issue is being blamed on CO2 emissions, however according to notable sources the reason why 2007 is likely to the warmest year yet is largely down to El Nino, another headline grabbing item that has dissappeared from our front pages...
Graham Pirrie, Northampton, UK

It's stuff like this that demonstrate the green movement does reap very tangible benefits for everyone, something that a lot of people apparently forget when they write their diatribes on HYS.

If you wanted a more historic example, you could have mentioned the tackling of the London smogs in the first half of the 20th Century. Or going back even further, the introduction of public sanitation. These are examples of where Britain has led the way in limiting environmental damage.
James Allan, Manchester, UK

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