EC defends precautionary principle but puts brakes on its unfettered use

The European Commission has published a Communication on the future use of the Precautionary Principle. It seeks to avoid excessive and unpredictable use of the principle, while simultaneously asserting the right to protect "the environment, human, animal and plant health" from scientific uncertainty.

Last autumn EC president Romano Prodi promised that the EC would clarify its position on the precautionary principle. During the drafting of the Communication the EC was accused by environmentalists of taking its decisions behind closed doors (see related story). The criticism may have affected the EC’s decision to engage in consultation following publication of the Communication.

Whatever the reason for the ongoing consultation, the debate looks set to continue with many environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace, critical of the Communication’s stipulation that officials undertake risk assessments before considering the precautionary principle. The current EU chemicals policy, subject to an imminent and radical overhaul, has been declared ineffective largely because it depends on time-consuming risk assessments .

The US has consistently accused the EU of using the precautionary principle as a form of backdoor protectionism, while many European environmentalists have been lobbying officials to make wider use of the principle.

The EC strongly denies that the precautionary principle is a contravention of international free trade laws and states that it is not used as a method of protecting EU industries. “The Commission considers that the Community, like other WTO members, has the right to establish the level of protection – particularly of the environment, human, animal and plant health – that it deems appropriate.”

Although the EC vigorously defends its right to use the precautionary principle, it admits that guidelines must be invoked “within a structured approach to the analysis of risk”. The Communication also concedes that “the implementation of an approach based on the precautionary principle should start with a scientific evaluation, as complete as possible, and where possible, identifying at each stage the degree of scientific uncertainty”. Should the use of precautionary principle be warranted, the EC states that its use be subject to review, particularly in the light of any new scientific data.-

The proposed structure appears to have satisfied the US, with the American Chamber of Commerce in Brussels welcoming the Communication.

Another component of the Communication acknowledges the right to assign the burden of scientific proof to producers or importers of the product(s) in question, but only on a case-by-case basis and “not as a general rule”. This has angered environmental organisations who argue that burden of proof should be in the hand of producers as a matter of course.

While denying that the precautionary principle represents a politicisation of science, the EC states that “judging what is an ‘acceptable’ level of risk for society is an eminently political responsibility”. The word ‘duty’ is emphasised: “Decision-makers faced with an unacceptable risk, scientific uncertainty and public concerns have a duty to find answers.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie