No More Acid Rain?

I remember back in the late 70’s and 80’s seeing daily headlines about how acid rain was causing massive deforestation and was a major environmental hazard.

40 years later I can’t remember seeing mention of words ‘acid rain’ in the headlines. What happened, is it not a threat anymore? Did it already do all the damage it could? Did we fix the problem? Did we give up?

We largely fixed the problem. It was tied to air pollution which we thankfully worked to remediate.

I’m speaking for the US. I believe China has issues with acid rain.

We used to listen to our scientists. We were warned about the effects of sulfur dioxide and of aerosols and of CFCs, and we took action to mitigate their effects and lo, the effects were mitigated.

And now the scientists warn of CO2 and climate change and instead of listening we throw infantile tantrums screaming “FAKE NEWS!”. And lo, the problem keeps getting much, much worse.

Although the acid rain problem is not entirely gone in North America, the mitigation of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions is one of the great environmental success stories of the 20th century and a great credit to the EPA.

The other great environmental accomplishment of the past century was the elimination of leaded gasoline (tetraethyl lead).

The Acid Rain Program: A Success Story | The EPA Blog

Climate change is a much bigger problem requiring more foundational changes, and mitigation strategies have direct impacts on the entire fossil fuel industry, heavy industry, and other vested interests. Furthermore, the effects of acid rain were in many cases clearly visible – acidification of some of our lakes and waterways and aquatic life, effects on plants and trees, and even deterioration of building exteriors. Whereas the effects of CO2 and climate change, as serious and global as they are, are slower and less directly visible. For all those reasons, greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change policy has become highly politicized and contentious, despite the incontrovertible clarity of the science.

And thanks to prevailing winds, Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan, have to deal with some of it as well (on top of local sources, of course).

There are no truly local issues when it comes to atmospheric pollution.

To the extent that China is contributing to South Korea’s air pollution, as the article notes it’s analogous to the problem that Canada faced in the 70s and 80s from acid rain due to SO2 and nitrogen oxides originating from the US, largely from power plants and industrial plants in the US Northeast. It was causing major environmental damage in parts of Canada and was a major source of political contention between the two countries. It was largely resolved by the US Clean Air Act of 1990 and, as I said, is a great environmental success story.

Some people never believed acid rain was really hurting anything. You can see the damage for yourself by looking at stone monuments that have been around a while. For example, in downtown Indianapolis, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument has statues facing in every direction. The statues on the west side that catch the most rain have rounded-off features, compared with the sharper details on the east side. You’ll find the same in other cities.

And the way that we solved the problem was largely by cap and trade, one of the same solutions that’s now sometimes advocated for carbon emissions.

Sulfur Oxides (SOX) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOX) are the major emissions that caused acid rain. 3 things happen to mitigate this :

1> The tough environment laws in the US, made many chemical companies to move out of the US and setup shop in other countries, thereby taking production and jobs with them.

2> SOx (sulfur oxides) was solved over time by using alkaline components like lime to coal in coal power plants. Refineries made ultra low sulfur diesel and generally sulfur in all fuels were reduced.

It is important to note that although SOx makes acid rain, it is a “global cooling” gas (opposite of CO2 which is causing “global warming”)

3> NOX (Nitrogen Oxides) was solved by redesigning burners, using ammonia, and using catalytic reduction of NOX (like the catalytic converters in cars).

If this were the case, then we’d still have an acid rain problem. Weather doesn’t care about national boundaries.

Not necessarily. Unlike CO2, SOx has a limited time in atmosphere before falling out in precipitation.

(from Acid Rain Transport)

So SOx acid rain isn’t an intercontinental range pollutant. A point or regional source in, say, China probably wouldn’t reach the United States.

Chronos please take a look at the chart in the link. Since about 1980, you will see a steady decline in the SOx emissions for the US/Europe… but a steady rise in Asia/Africa.

Agreed that it doesn’t directly prove that companies moved from the US to China, but my statement is based on personal experience.

Also, emissions are accounted for differently in different parts of the world. And the level of rigor in the US for measuring emissions is not there in Asia or Africa.

Forget Asia or Africa, please do not forget what Volkswagen did with Diesel engine emissions. If the Germans can get away for so many years … it certainly puts other pollution data integrity into question.

Or just go to any old graveyard, and try to read the names on the headstones.

There are a number of reasons that manufacturing moved offshore. Environmental regulations were a small part of it. But sure, when we complain about what China is doing, whether it be sulfur or carbon emissions, a significant amount of that is being done to create products for US consumers.

And, no matter how well we clean up our emissions, there will be isolated cases of acid rain caused by volcanic eruptions.