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The Problem with Environmental Policies built on Scientific Sand

Submitted by on 15 Apr 2014 – 14:50

By Christa Klaß MEP, Vice-Chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety

Christa KlassEuropean environmental politics is increasingly affected by ideology-driven debates. Nowhere else is this as clear as at the European Parliament. The impact of scientific findings on political decisions plays a key role in these debates. In the context of various topics, different parties refer to different arguments and sources. Unfortunately they increasingly abuse these arguments and sources for their own purposes and misinterpret them. In particular, in environmental politics it is essential to include the people in the reasoning behind political decisions. The people are at the core of those decisions. As decision-makers we want to maintain our credibility and take the peoples’ concerns and needs seriously. Therefore, we should only include those scientific findings in our decisions which completely fulfil two criteria: They must come from an objective research organization. And they must be well-founded and generally accepted among scientists. I would like to illustrate this challenge by three recent examples from the Environment Committee of the European Parliament.

Indirect land-use change – a contested formula

During the current legislative term, EU institutions discussed the phenomenon of indirect land-use change (ilUC) as a result of an increased demand for bio-fuels in Europe. It is based on the assumption that the increasing land-use change in Europe – more cultivable surface for the production of bio-fuels – leads to the clearance of rainforests in other parts of the globe in order to meet the food demand. This is said to have a negative impact on the global greenhouse gas emissions balance. Upon proposal by the European Commission, this complex phenomenon is supposed to be calculated by a scientifically highly contested and hypothetical formula (IFPRI formula). Even the authors of the underlying scientific study have admitted that the results of their research should currently not inform any far-reaching political decisions. Investments in bio-fuel production which have already been made would largely be put into question. Only a few years ago, we had politically supported these investments in the context of European efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We would thus turn back the hands of time based on a contested formula. This, however, is not compatible with the standards of a moderate and reliable environmental policy.

Biodegradable plastic bags – really biodegradable?

The directive to reduce the use of lightweight plastic bags is the second example. Here as well, we are building our environmental policy on shaky scientific grounds. In March, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee adopted a preferential treatment of so-called biodegradable materials although the actual degradability of these bags in a marine environment or in garden compost is scientifically highly contested. There are researchers who state that, on the one hand, these bags don’t degrade faster than other bags and, on the other hand, they are not recyclable. The committee decided that biodegradable bags may be sold to the consumer for a considerably lower price than other plastic bags. This questionable political decision for a preferential treatment of such bags can have far-reaching consequences for investments in other plastics and in recycling technologies. If it turns out that biodegradable bags are not more environmentally friendly than conventional plastic bags, whole branches of business would have been damaged for no reason. At the same time, it is self-evident that the environment will be affected. At the end of the day, we mustn’t forget the original aim of this piece of legislation: We want to reduce the quantity of plastic bags in our environment, notwithstanding their material.

Engineered nanomaterials – which concentration is measurable?

The third example is taken from the field of food labelling. The European Parliament recently dealt with the labelling of engineered nanomaterials. One of the questions was, which percentage of food additives in nano format within food these additives must be labelled accordingly. This is called the threshold for the number size distribution regarding labelling requirements. Different research institutions came to different results and recommendations. Certain research bodies classified the proposed level of ten per cent as not measurable. Instead they pleaded for a threshold of 50 per cent. Once more, different scientific findings contradicted each other. In this case, however, the European Parliament decided in a quite clever way. The members of the environment committee reacted to the uncertainty around the ten per cent threshold and agreed on the safer approach of a 50 per cent threshold. In the event of more stable scientific evidence, further political decisions can be made at a later stage. This would be rather problematic the other way round.

The examples demonstrate how dangerous it is to build political decisions on scientific sand. It is very difficult to reverse the economic and ecological consequences of over-hasty decisions. In any case, our citizens are the sufferers of wrong decisions – whether it concerns their lifestyle in general, their health and not least their jobs and additional costs. This conclusion, however, does not mean that I call for more reluctance when it comes to decision-making. Yet in a more and more technically complex living environment we need to proceed politically in a highly sensible way.

More than ever before, we should build our environmental policies on a stable foundation. This also means that we should take the time we need. Legislation that builds on scientific findings which turns out not to be sustainable is poison for the faith of all stakeholders in our work. We politicians aren’t experts ourselves. But one should expect that we let correct and objective evidence inform our work and that we don’t fall for ideologists. Science itself should never be the object of policies, but only the backbone.