In a recent post Sinc noted that ‘acid rain was an obvious problem’. Perhaps the effectiveness of the cap and trade ‘solution’ has been overstated. Here’s Ron Bailey on the subject:
In the years prior to 1985, several publications reported the scientific consensus that acid rain emitted by coal-fired electricity generation plants belching sulfur dioxide was destroying vast swathes of forests and lakes in the eastern United States. For example, the March 10, 1985 New York Times cited environmental lawyer Richard Ottinger, who asserted that there is a “broad scientific consensus” that acid rain is destroying lakes and forests and ”is a threat to our health.” In 1991, after 10 years and $500 million, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program study (as far as I can tell that report is oddly missing from the web) actually reported, according to a 1992 article in Reason: “The assessment concluded that acid rain was not damaging forests, did not hurt crops, and caused no measurable health problems. The report also concluded that acid rain helped acidify only a fraction of Northeastern lakes and that the number of acid lakes had not increased since 1980.” Nevertheless, Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments that regulate sulfur dioxide emissions through a cap-and-trade scheme. Acid rain was clearly causing some problems, but was not the wide-scale environmental disaster that had been feared.
As it happens, the acid rain scare was what precipitated (sorry) Matt Ridley to start questioning the received wisdom of environmentalism:
In the 1980s it was acid rain’s turn to be the source of apocalyptic forecasts. In this case it was nature in the form of forests and lakes that would bear the brunt of human pollution. The issue caught fire in Germany, where a cover story in the news magazine Der Spiegel in November 1981 screamed: “THE FOREST DIES.” Not to be outdone, Stern magazine declared that a third of Germany’s forests were already dead or dying. Bernhard Ulrich, a soil scientist at the University of Göttingen, said it was already too late for the country’s forests: “They cannot be saved.” Forest death, or waldsterben, became a huge story across Europe. “The forests and lakes are dying. Already the damage may be irreversible,” journalist Fred Pearce wrote in New Scientist in 1982. It was much the same in North America: Half of all US lakes were said to be becoming dangerously acidified, and forests from Virginia to central Canada were thought to be suffering mass die-offs of trees.
Conventional wisdom has it that this fate was averted by prompt legislative action to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions from power plants. That account is largely false. There was no net loss of forest in the 1980s to reverse. In the US, a 10-year government-sponsored study involving some 700 scientists and costing about $500 million reported in 1990 that “there is no evidence of a general or unusual decline of forests in the United States and Canada due to acid rain” and “there is no case of forest decline in which acidic deposition is known to be a predominant cause.” (See also: here and here.) In Germany, Heinrich Spiecker, director of the Institute for Forest Growth, was commissioned by a Finnish forestry organization to assess the health of European forests. He concluded that they were growing faster and healthier than ever and had been improving throughout the 1980s. “Since we began measuring the forest more than 100 years ago, there’s never been a higher volume of wood … than there is now,” Spiecker said. (Ironically, one of the chief ingredients of acid rain-nitrogen oxide-breaks down naturally to become nitrate, a fertilizer for trees.) As for lakes, it turned out that their rising acidity was likely caused more by reforestation than by acid rain; one study suggested that the correlation between acidity in rainwater and the pH in the lakes was very low. The story of acid rain is not of catastrophe averted but of a minor environmental nuisance somewhat abated.