Europe accused of undemocratic revision of the precautionary principle

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has accused the European Union of conducting its review of the precautionary principle behind closed doors. EEB has called on the EU to open up the debate when it publishes its findings in the New Year.

EEB represents more than 130 European environmental groups. It believes that intense pressure from within and outside the EU may lead to an erosion of the precautionary principle. “The Precautionary Principle justifies early action to prevent harm and an unacceptable impact to the environment and human health in the face of scientific uncertainty,” states EEB.

With a revision of the precautionary principle being undertaken without consultation, EEB is worried that restrictions to the principle are on the bargaining table.

“I’ve asked people in the Commission ‘Is this the beginning or the end of the process?’ and I’ve got different answers,” Christian Hey of EEB told edie. “They’re not going to be able to avoid a public debate, so it would be useful for the Commission to create a structure for it.”

EEB has identified characteristics that create, in its opinion, a workable precautionary principle. They are:

  • early action on the basis of reasonable suspicion of harm
  • reversal of the burden of proof of harm onto the proponents of an activity or product
  • use of the substitution principle to seek out safer alternatives to potentially harmful activities
  • transparency and democratic decision-making to decide about the acceptability of technologies and activities and ways to control them

While many representing industrial or financial interests have criticised the EU’s use of the precautionary principle – in the area of genetically modified crops and foods (see related story), for instance – EEB sees benefits to its use. In the case of reversing the burden of proof, the EEB believes the precautionary principle could lead to a reduction in time-consuming political debates of the sort that have surrounded BSE: “The reversal of the burden of proof is a fundamental principle of precautionary action,” states EEB. “The reversal of burden of proof creates incentives for the proponents of an activity to prove that their product or activity is safe. The traditional burden of proof, which lies with legislators, may cause considerable delays before action is initiated.”

EEB also argues that invoking the precautionary principle can prove a catalyst for technological improvements: “Where safer alternatives are available or may be marketed in the forthcoming future, these should be promoted as a substitute to the activity giving rise to ‘reasonable suspicion ‘. The substitution principle allows for technology-driven changes (best environmental option) instead of waiting for the proof of harm.”

Cost-benefit analyses come in for criticism from EEB and the organisation hopes the EU is aware that their use could make the precautionary principle ineffective in preventing food safety disasters: “Cost -Benefit Analysis is not an appropriate methodology to manage uncertainty,” EEB states baldly. “A cost-benefit analysis can only be applied as a tool to identify the efficient level of environmental protection if there is full knowledge of the cost of the damage that is to be prevented. It must be kept in mind that precautionary action is not based on demonstrated actual risk, but very often on anticipated risks that are considered plausible.” That said, EEB does not see itself opposed to efforts to make environmental initiatives affordable. “The EEB does not reject economic assessment. Once the environmental goal is set, a Cost-Effectiveness Analysis may help to identify the least-cost options of precautionary action, benefiting all actors involved.”

The EU’s failure to consult with its environmental stakeholders during its review of the precautionary principle has led EEB to publish its Position on the Precautionary Principle. “The preparatory process for the Commission Paper on the Precautionary Principle has been intransparent and non-participatory,” says EEB. “Stakeholders were not officially consulted and not informed. The EEB expects the Commission to allow for wider public discussion at earliest possible stage.”

European Environmental Bureau’s Position on the Precautionary Principle

Hope for Kyoto ratification by 2002 lends urgency to EU sustainable development timetable

The EU has agreed a June 2001 deadline for the completion of plans to integrate sustainable development principles into specific industries. The aim is for the plans to come into force immediately after the deadline, to allow EU member states to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 2002.

Work on ‘greening’ Europe’s agriculture, transport and energy sectors is well underway. Progress has been slower in developing sustainable development strategies for the internal market, development and industry councils and fisheries councils.

In addition to setting a June 2001 deadline for completion of an overall environmental strategy for each industry or sector, the EU has stated that it would welcome plans from industries that are ahead of the timetable to introduce a second, further round of environmental measures or to create indicators for measuring success.

With sectoral sustainable development plans underway, the EU has asked the European Commission to present a long-term strategy for comprehensive sustainable development at a European level and across all sectors. The strategy will be presented to the European Council just as sector strategies are completed in June 2001. The EU expects this comprehensive strategy to serve as the EU’s contribution to the ten year review of the Rio Process, scheduled for 2002. Many environmental groups and nations are hoping that the Rio + 10 meeting will see the global ratification of the Kyoto Protocol (see related story), although others believe the international agreement to slow down climate change will not be ratified so soon.

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