Broad EU approach to precaution demanded

EEB lobbies against restricted use of precautionary principle as Commission paper delayed

European environmental groups have made a "last minute appeal" for the EU to adopt a strong definition of the precautionary principle as the European Commission prepares to publish a controversial paper on the subject.

The EU communication was to have been published next week, but its approval has now been pushed back to 12 January. The paper will be released alongside a white paper on food safety, which is undergoing eleventh hour amendments after a group of scientists recommended creating an EU public health and food safety agency (ENDS Daily 13 December).

In a position paper, the EEB said that "considerable pressure" had been imposed by elements in the Commission and from EU and foreign industries to limit the use of the precautionary principle. One probable target of the claim is a damning paper on the principle released in October by American firms operating in Europe (ENDS Daily 15 October).

Setting out its own vision, the EEB defines "essential elements" of precautionary action. It should be possible where there is ignorance or indeterminacy as well as if there is risk or uncertainty, the paper says. In addition, the burden of proof should be placed on proponents of an activity. Precaution should encompass the substitution principle, allowing for "technology driven changes". Finally, precaution "requires public participation" in decision making.

The EEB criticises a series of "misleading definitions" of the principle being promoted by other stakeholders. It is unacceptable, the group says, to consider precautionary action as a temporary measure, justified only until full scientific certainty is made available. Likewise precautionary action cannot be limited to damages or effects considered serious or irreversible, especially where the underlying justification for its use is the presence of uncertainty.

Some stakeholders are demanding a "significant threshold of plausibility or gravity" before the principle is invoked, the EEB says. It describes this as "incompatible with the principle's design" where information is unavailable or uncertain, and says that "reasonable suspicion" would be a better threshold.

Cost-benefit analysis is "not an appropriate methodology" to manage uncertainty, since it can only be applied if there is full knowledge of the damage that is to be prevented, the EEB continues. While accepting that precautionary action should be proportional, the group argues that proportionality itself should also be based upon a precautionary approach.

Follow Up:
EEB, tel: +32 2 289 1090. References: EEB Position on the Precautionary Principle.

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