Sad Sad Rain – a Reason for Hope

Pop Music, Acid Rain, and our Climate Challenge

I grew up in the 1980’s when the radio waves were a-rift with iconic pop tunes disguising omens of apocalyptic doom. Remember Nena’s “99 Luft Balloons”? Nuclear War. Rush’s “Distant Early Warning”? A suite of doomsday scenarios.  Platinum Blonde’s “Sad Sad Rain” ? At that time I believed rumours that it was about devastation from our skies.

What ever happened to acid rain? Most of us can hardly remember. And that’s a good thing.

There are lessons from this era and this particular pollution problem, that would be well applied to our most pressing environmental problem: climate change.

What is acid rain anyway?

When air-borne sulphur (SO2) or nitrogen compounds (NOx) combine with rain or snow, the result is a more acidic rainfall that damages the ecosystem. The primary industries responsible are coal-fired power plants, oil and gas facilities, and mineral processing. Combustion of fossil fuels in homes and cars also contributes.

In high enough concentration, the land, soil, and water receiving the rainfall can have a significant change in pH such that they may no longer support certain lifeforms.

The Smithsonian tells the story of two scientists, Gene Likens from Dartmouth and Svante Oden from Uppsala in Sweden, who began to ring the alarm bell. They pieced together independent data gathered from both sides of the Atlantic to pinpoint the cause.

They discovered that human activity, particularly the burning of coal for electricity, was having a detrimental effect on our lakes and land. Likens published a paper in Science in 1974 that propelled the issue into the media spotlight.

Scientists began to document the effects. One large study in the 1980’s, found that of 849 lakes in the Adirondack region of the U.S. northeast, 55% were already devastated by the effects of acid rain.

Effective legislation didn’t follow right away, but came into place in the early 1990’s. During the 1980’s there was a period of debate, discussion, and questioning of the science. However, within a decade after Likens raised the alarm, policy makers passed legislation to curb emissions in both Canada and the U.S.

The effect has been quite dramatic.

What happened?

In 1979, Canada and the U.S. signed onto a world- wide agreement on long range pollutants through the United Nations. Later, in 1991, President George Bush Sr. and Brian Mulroney signed the Acid Rain Accord that spelled out the fundamentals of emissions reductions to reduce acid rain.

The U.S. met and exceeded their initial SO2 target – 2 years early and below the original target!  Their annual SO2 emissions fell 56% from 17.3 Mt in 1980 to 7.6 Mt in 2008.

Canada’s results have been equally dramatic – a a 66% reduction in SO2 emissions from the 1990 starting point.

Total sulphur oxide emissions by source, Canada, 1990 to 2016


Canada’s other pollutants in this category follow a similar trend .

How were emissions reduced?

The type of regulations enacted were a bit different in each country; the U.S. adopted a cap-and-trade type regulation whereas Canada followed more of a “standard” approach – e.g. telling industry how much SO2/NOx they could emit per unit of product.

The electrical industry responded by adding scrubbers to their stacks and/or sourcing lower sulphur coal to feed the plants. The oil and gas industry uses a variety of equipment to remove sulphur and nitrogen compounds from product streams, turning the acidic emissions into more benign waste. The resulting solid sulphur is commonly marketed as a fertilizer feedstock.

Consumers, whether aware or not, now burn very low sulphur products in their cars and to heat their homes.

And the cost of all the pollution control equipment? Borne by industry, it has remained essentially opaque to consumers. It has not become a talking point at the local coffee shop. There has been no wide-scale divestment of the industries affected as a result of the legislation – likely in part because the regulatory changes were adopted across a lot of the globe.

Despite the effective result in terms of emissions, the land and water is still slow to recover. We do need to keep the pedal to the metal on acid rain. However, we are headed in a positive direction as explained in this article by Janet Pelley

What can we learn?

There is no doubt, the magnitude and challenge of reducing carbon emissions dwarfs the acid rain problem. However, if we view the approach to reducing SO2 and NOx as a successful pilot program, we can take the first steps in the climate challenge with a little more optimism.

Some of the lessons we can apply are:

  1. When we listen to scientists, and policy makers take assertive action, we can solve extremely difficult problems.
  2. The environmental legislation enacted to combat acid rain was met with technological and business adaptations by the industry it was designed to regulate.
  3. Canada has been a leader and influencer in the past on environmental legislation regardless of the size of our contributions to the problem.
  4. Once sensible environmental legislation is in place, it need not become a revolving ballot issue. Acid Rain legislation actually became more stringent over time.
  5. Environmental legislation can spur innovation, new technologies, and even new product streams.

What are we waiting for when it comes to climate change policy?

It’s difficult to say why Canada has been so hesitant to be a leader in this regard. We’ve played a lead role in the development of  North American Acid Rain legislation and also in reducing HFC’s (hydrofluorocarbons) through our involvement in the The Montreal Protocol.

It’s sad, possibly even heartbreaking, for many of us to accept that we intend to lag rather than lead on this front.

Maybe someone should write a pop song about that.

Alisa Caswell has a degree in chemical engineering. She spent twenty years working in the oil and gas industry, including roles in operations and energy conservation. She previously held the position of Chair – Oil Sands, Canadian Industry Program for Energy Conservation (CIPEC). She lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta. You can follow her on Facebook or check out her profile on Linked In.

[1] Photo: Photo: Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash
[4] Canadian Emissions Data: s
[5] Soils recover: