Greenpeace blasts EU over precaution paper

NGO claims Commission paper will "undermine purpose" of precautionary principle

The European Commission will "undermine the very meaning and purpose" of the precautionary principle when it issues a policy statement on the issue next month, Greenpeace has charged. In a letter addressed to all EU commissioners this week, the lobby group predicted the Commission would publish operational rules for using the principle that "almost entirely match those set out by [European chemical industry association] Cefic".

The Commission started formulating rules on how to apply the precautionary principle last spring (ENDS Daily 26 April 1999). The paper should have been published before the end of the year (ENDS Daily 5 October 1999) but is now expected to emerge on 2 February. Its eventual conclusions have already been publicly fought over between EU industry groups (ENDS Daily 15 October 1999) and environmental groups (ENDS Daily 15 December 1999).

According to Greenpeace, the paper will fail to define the precautionary principle strongly enough in three ways: by relying on risk assessment, by requiring cost-benefit analysis and by saying that precautionary action should be temporary.

On chemicals, a key area where the EU will apply the principle, Greenpeace alleges that assessment of "existing" chemicals has been "completely paralysed by its reliance on risk assessment". Maintaining the requirement for risk assessment before action can be taken would "prevent [the principle] from performing the very function for which it was initially formulated," the group says.

Requiring cost-benefit analysis before applying the principle will also damage the ability to take truly precautionary action, Greenpeace argues. "A requirement for [an analysis] will, in reality, deteriorate into a purely economic evaluation of costs, putting the interests of environmental protection at a severe disadvantage." Cost-benefit analysis should instead be used only after a decision has been made to act, as a tool to decide on which course is best.

Applying the principle on a temporary basis, until firmer scientific knowledge emerges, is not justified in most cases, Greenpeace says. It would risk leaving the Commission in a "stalemate" position, "unable to put any decision behind it and focus attention on moving forward". It would also "fail to give a clear direction to the producers and users of hazardous chemicals and technologies, or a clear message to the public".

The group also attacks the Commission over a lack of transparency in preparing its precaution paper. Not only have environmental groups not been consulted, Greenpeace complains, but they have also been "denied any information about the Commission's deliberations".

Follow Up:
Greenpeace EU unit, tel: 280 1400; European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111.

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