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Rethinking the Environmental Policies of the EU in the Context of Ecosystems

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 11:42

Rethinking the Environmental Policies of the EU in the context of ecosystemsRethinking the Environmental Policies of the EU in the Context of Ecosystems

By Professor İlhan TALINLI, İstanbul Technical University, Civil Engineering Faculty, Environmental Engineering Department, Maslak İstanbul Turkey

Recent years have witnessed increased awareness of the human impact on environmental change.  Today, it’s clearer than ever that the sustainability of any policy is governed by restrictions posed by environmental factors.  Therefore, environmental policies should supersede all other types of policies.

An ecosystem, by definition, is a system formed by the interactions of living organisms with their surroundings.  An environment, then, can be defined as a collection of ecosystems that exist within a particular area.  In such a system, all sub-systems such as air, water, soil, wildlife etc, try to reach a balance that’s known as the ecological balance.  The process of reaching this balance is governed by the laws of nature, refined by millions of years of evolution.  These laws, unfortunately, are often neglected when humans draft the laws and policies that govern society.  For example, the Montreau Convention of 1936 guarantees free passage to vessels through the Bosphorous and Dardanella straits, even though the environmental impact of such traffic requires strict regulation, especially since both straits have been declared a World Heritage.

Civil Disobedience

It is the responsibility of policy-makers to seek out the benefit of the environment in their decision making.  Most civil disobedience cases are against policies that neglect the impact to the environment for the sake of increased profits. It is this disregard for the environment in the name of globalization and progress that Vandana Shiva refers to when she says “old colonialisation only took over land, the new colonialisation is taking over life itself”.

A recent example from Turkey saw natives protest at gold mining with cyanide extraction.  Even though gold mining was going to improve the economy of the region, the natives realized how harmful cyanide extraction and the resulting hazardous wastes could be to their environment, and took a stand to prevent the project.

Nowadays, trends in the developed countries are beginning to shift from fossil fuels and nuclear power to more sustainable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.  Germany and Spain are world leaders in electricity production from wind.  In fact, Germany has already shut down five nuclear power stations and is planning to shut down the rest in a phased approach over the next decade.

Unfortunately, these promising results also come with some disheartening news from elsewhere in the world; the aging technologies used in fossil fuel and nuclear power generation are now being offered to developing countries.  Turkey, for example, is walking into a trap led by nuclear lobbyists; even though there is enormous potential for wind and solar energy in the Anatolian ecosystem, Turkey is planning to build her own nuclear power plant, without any concern for the fate of radioactive waste or the impact on the ecosystem.

On July 28, 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared that “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights”, with 122 votes in favour and zero votes against, while 41 countries abstained from voting.  The USA, Canada and the UK, world leaders in the commercialization of water, abstained from voting.  Unfortunately Turkey followed suit. Can the 122 votes in favour be classified as civil disobedience?

In all of the above examples, it should not be the actors of civil disobedience who should be judged, but those who write the policies without any regard for their impact on the environment.

Ecosystem Borders vs National Borders

Blanket environmental policies created by many nations often fall into similar pitfalls; it should be the ecosystems in a particular area that govern environmental policies, not national borders.  Environmental criteria for each ecosystem might be different; for example, the unique geography and culture of the Anatolian peninsula with its history, wildlife, natural resources, wind patterns, etc, can create ecological dynamics that are not compatible with the environmental policies enforced by the EU.

Those who attempt to create environmental policies should first understand the laws and dynamics of nature itself, and then create policies that are feasible, actionable and sustainable.

Below are some examples of some past attempts at policy-making (some successful, some not):

1.       Polluter pays – do the rich have the right to pollute?


2.       Sustainable development and environment – once the bearing capacity of an ecosystem is breached, that ecosystem cannot even support life let alone development.  Sustainable development, therefore, cannot be achieved by increasing GNP, but by sustainable ecosystems.


3.       Zero pollution approach – there is no such thing as zero pollution, however, there is an optimum treatment rate for all facilities, which can minimize pollution.


4.       Ecofriendly product / energy – both production and consumption can be eco-friendly as long as they don’t breach the ecosystem’s assimilation rate.


It is natural for each country to create policies that favour their own needs.  In the case of developing countries, the most pressing need is obtaining wealth.  For more developed countries, who have reached a certain level of wealth, the most pressing need is maintaining that wealth and the living style that comes with it.  Ecosystem boundaries, however, are not always the same as national boundaries.  Therefore, policies of neighboring countries may be different despite being in similar ecosystems.

In the case of the EU, policies are also governed by the legal framework of member countries.   This framework results in a legal procedure that is carried out by regulations, directives, conventions, recommendations and considerations.

In this framework, the main article of the law or regulation should correspond to the main objective of the policy in terms of the vision, planning, programming and implementation steps.  Sustainable improvement of the policy can be verified by closing the loop in each step to see if it aligns with the main objective.  All the processes in this systematic approach are dynamic, and the legal aspects are flexible.

Below are some core principles around environmental policies:

1.       Prevention is always better than damage control (environmentally, politically and economically).

2.       Past lessons should be carefully studied and integrated into the decision making process.

3.       Any action that might disrupt the ecological balance should be avoided.

a.       If a project done in one country might disrupt the ecological balance in another, the project should not be permitted.

4.       In the cost / benefit analysis of every project, impact to the environment should be taken into account.

5.       Scientific forecasting and feedback mechanisms should be implemented for each action.

6.       Both prevention and treatment/recovery costs should be the responsibility of the polluter (“polluter pays” principle).

7.       Policies implemented in developed countries might have consequences on developing countries; these should be taken into account in the decision-making process.

8.       Protecting the environment should be every individual’s duty; and education has a vital role in creating awareness.

9.       Action level of a policy is dependent on the pollution type; finding the right level and the most economically and environmentally feasible action is essential.

10.   Creation and implementation of national environmental policies should be coordinated with all countries that might have a stake in the process.  Systematic information flow and feedback loops are key in this process.  When possible, countries should act together on the common principles of each policy.


A Systematic Approach for EU Policies

The frame of a systematic approach has to be based on a series of Environmental Risk (ERA) and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) as well as Environmental Management Systems (EMS).  An EMS Project can make a policy sustainable as long as its feedbacks can be linked back to the policy’s objectives through closed loops.  If no such linkage can be found, then either the process/model needs to be modified or the objectives.

Management factors are generally reduced to wastes, sources and risks which interact among themselves.  Subfactors such as technical, economical, public acceptance and ecosystem characteristics should be taken into account along with main factors by using multiple criteria decision making methodology.  Recycling, recovery, reuse, waste minimization in waste management, eco-friendly products, green production, process modification in source management and accidents, emergency action plans and risk management are commonly used management modes used in an EMS project.  The general framework of this model is presented in Figure 1.  Such a model may be useful for law and policy-makers alike in their decision making.