Royal Commission calls for a new approach to policymaking

The Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution is calling for a new approach to setting standards for environmental protection, which is more sensitive to people's values.

Prompted by a growing rift between science, policy and public understanding of the environment, so clearly illustrated by the recent Brent Spar debacle, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has published Setting Environmental Standards, its 21st report designed to ‘point the direction’ for future environmental protection policies without making specific recommendations for action by particular bodies.

“For environmental policies to be successful, people must have confidence in the way they are being protected against risks.” said Chairman of the Royal Commission, Sir Tom Blundell, at the launch last month.

“That is best achieved if they are involved at every stage. Controversies over the last few years in this and related fields show clearly that governments, industry, the public and scientists all need a much better understanding of the relationship between policies, science and values.”

The global nature of environmental damage and the new commitment to social equity as part of sustainable development combine to make environmental issues increasingly complex. Against this backdrop, procedures for public consultation and participation are inadequate.

To remedy the situation, the Commission urges greater transparency in standard setting, including an ‘audit trail’; greater local input and more effective and systematic procedures, “so that people’s values can evolve under the challenge of scientific assessments, other relevant information and competing priorities”.

While supporting the continued role of direct regulation, the Commission sees it as only one element in a broader approach which will include green taxes and charges, voluntary action by companies and individuals.

It says the need for partnership will require transparency and openness, better accountability and new forms of environmental standard such as green claims, environmental reporting and clear published environmental quality targets set by governments.

Some key conclusions

– Decisions about environmental policies must be based on scientific evidence, an analysis of the technological options, risks, costs and people’s values

– Better ways are needed to for articulating people’s values at an earlier stage

– Standard setting bodies should draw an explicit distinction between scientific statements and recommendations based on scientific assessment in conjunction with other factors

– When environmental policies are adopted, what or who they are designed to protect should be made clear

– To prevent development of new understanding being restricted by established regulatory procedures or vested interests, publicly funded programmes of research should include provision for independent investigation and inquiry

– Where a standard is set at European level, it should be in a form that allows as much discretion about methods of implementation as feasible without undermining it.

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Twenty-first Report, Setting Environmental Standards (Cm 4053, ISBN 0 10 140532 4), £21.40 is available from the Stationery Office

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