At the start of December I gave a short presentation at the health session of the EEB’s 40th Anniversary conference. It was based around three themes:
- the need to ensure pollution is part of discussions on the environment (rather than just climate, resource efficiency and biodiversity)
- the need to focus on increasing wellbeing in the jobs, growth & sustainability debate
- the need to acknowledge the real complexities of science when making decisions on how to control chemical use
What do these themes mean for Europe in 2015?
- Pollution is important, and everyone needs to think about it when they are looking at environmental, green economy or sustainability policies.
- People want jobs & growth in wellbeing, not growth in GDP – and much of this needs to come from new, green, approaches, not protecting dirty vested interests.
- Much of the science most relevant to policymaking, particularly when discussing chemicals, is uncertain and incomplete. Decision makers must therefore make decisions with available science.
I expand on each of these elements briefly below.
1) Pollution is important, and everyone needs to think about it when they are looking at environmental, green economy or sustainability policies.
- Air pollution is causing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year in the EU – yet the new Juncker Commission wants to delay a proposal that would reduce air pollution.
- The supply chains that supply European companies and consumers cause massive pollution around the world – air pollution, water pollution, damage to worker health etc etc. For example, the pollution created by tin mining in Bangka, Indonesia or water pollution in China.
- Water pollution remains a problem around the EU – for example the impact of pharmaceutical pollution, or chemicals from imported textiles.
- Pollution of our bodies by harmful chemicals – for example bisphenol A or certain phthalates – continues, and we have pervasive exposure to problematic chemicals in our homes and from products we buy and use. Even the chemicals in the packaging around our food are not properly regulated.
- Environmental policies interact – for example, the creation of a truly circular economy will require stricter controls on the use of chemicals in products, to enable these products to be recycled to high value used. For example, there is a need to address the issue of bisphenol A from till receipts contaminating recycled papers, or potential contamination of recycled products by the (poorly regulated) chemicals found in the inks and glues of food packaging materials.
2) People want jobs & growth in wellbeing, not growth in GDP – and much of this needs to come from new, green, approaches, not protecting dirty vested interests.
- It’s obvious really, but people don’t want increased GDP – they want what it is perceived to lead to, i.e. jobs and increased wellbeing. Policies should therefore be focussed on increasing wellbeing, not on increasing GDP.
- The OECD agrees – good quality environmental regulation doesn’t damage the economy and actually helps new, cleaner business models and technologies develop. Yet business lobby groups such as Business Europe (strongly influenced by old, dirty, industry) continue to campaign against environmental regulations (e.g. on climate) – and too many politicians and policymakers still believe them.
- Denmark is known to be a country with strong environmental policies (including on chemicals), and Denmark tops the list of Forbes magazine’s best countries to do business.
- Yet new Commission President Juncker proposed to withdraw proposals on the circular economy and on air pollution; following a backlash these proposals are not fully withdrawn, but their status remains uncertain. It is estimated – by the Commission – that the Circular Economy proposal will create 180,000 new jobs, while the air pollution package should avoid 58,000 premature deaths.
3) Much of the science most relevant to policymaking, particularly when discussing chemicals, is uncertain and incomplete. Decision makers must therefore make decisions with available data.
- Science is vitally important in all areas of environmental policy (and beyond).
- However, policymakers must be aware of the limitations of science and not expect unreasonable levels of evidence. For example, many experiments are hard – or unethical – to perform. For example the impacts of a chemical exposure on the development of the human foetus may only become clear decades later.
- Scientists and policymakers must weigh up the evidence that is available, and remember that both the decision to act or not to act should be informed by the available evidence. A decision not to restrict a chemical is still a decision which should be justified. The Late Lessons reports from the EEA demonstrate the costs that have been incurred due to policymakers not acting soon enough on problems.
- Policymakers must also be aware that parts of industry are very experienced in ‘creating doubt’ in order to prevent regulatory action. This approach has been used extensively by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, and by the chemical industry.