Brexit could kill the precautionary principle – here’s why it matters so much for our environment

Handle with care. via shutterstock.com

The world is witnessing an increase in the number and severity of hurricanes, droughts, floods and famines. A significant part of this is attributable to the temperature rises and disruption to the weather systems that human industrial activity has triggered.

Yet at this very moment, when the world needs new protections to mitigate dangerous climate change more than ever, Britain faces a struggle to maintain its current levels of environmental protection. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has set in place a process that, if it continues, jeopardises the future of many of the country’s most important environmental protections.

In a recent briefing to MPs, my colleague Tim O'Riordan and I focused on the threat to what’s called the precautionary principle, and why it matters for the future of environmental law after Brexit.

The precautionary principle is present in UK law mainly by way of its presence in EU law. It says that if the potential downside of some action or technology is huge, then the normal burden of proof should be reversed. In other words, rather than scientists having to prove that something is dangerous before it’s regulated or prohibited, those wishing to do the potentially dangerous thing should have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is safe before they are allowed to do it. Better safe than sorry.

The draft EU Withdrawal Bill currently making its way through parliament would eliminate the precautionary principle from environmental law, thus confirming many of the environmental movement’s worst fears about what Brexit could mean for sustainability.

An amendment vote on November 15 went against the principle being retained in British law. There will probably be another chance before the end of November to vote the precautionary principle into post-Brexit law when MPs vote on another proposed change to the bill, amendment NC28.

But this is not likely to pass either, because the environment secretary, Michael Gove, has played a clever hand in appeasing those Conservatives keen on environmental protection in such a way that he can make the case that the precautionary principle will not be eliminated. The fact remains that Gove’s proposed way of “preserving” it – by creating a new environmental watchdog and a new policy statement on environmental principles – would mean that it would no longer be part of UK law.

Habitats at risk

This principle is part of what keeps us safe: in Britain, in Europe, and globally. If the principle were eliminated, it could put at risk current protections for natural habitats, and protections against reckless introduction of new technologies and potentially dangerous pesticides. For example, the European Union’s ban on beef reared with growth hormones is partly based on the application of the precautionary principle.

Perhaps most worrying is the possibility that one of the lynchpins of European Union environmental law may be downgraded or abandoned by Britain without real public scrutiny in order to make the country more “competitive” for markets and attractive to overseas trade deals. This is especially the case with potential deals with the US, which does not accept the precautionary principle as being a basis for law.

In international law, the precautionary principle’s most widespread accepted form is that found in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which mandates that:

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

At its heart, precaution represents a challenge to purely “evidence-based” risk-management practices. Instead, the precautionary principle points out that when full evidence is lacking we should err on the side of caution and regulate potential threats, if those could cause serious or irreversible damage. This is more important than ever as we create new synthetic products, including even synthetic life, and as we meddle, at our existential risk, with our climate.

The precautionary principle tends to be out of favour with those who are focused on promoting growth, trade and investment at all costs. Consequently, it was of no surprise that Greenpeace’s 2015 leaks of the UK-US trade negotiations over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade deal revealed that the US – even under Obama’s presidency – was keen to push for its abandonment as part of that deal.

A principle in need of support

If we believe that risks should be borne by those who take them and not by the public, then we must defend and indeed extend the scope of the precautionary principle.

While Brexit undoubtedly challenges us to maintain our environmental protections, it could also be an opportunity to expand them. Leaving the EU need not mean the abandonment of key environmental protections, providing that there is a will and knowledge within the general population and political representatives about the importance of these protections.

If the precautionary principle is to survive the current political and legal process in Britain, it needs wider understanding and wider support. The government needs to understand that ordinary citizens understand what is at stake here, and care. It’s now up to UK citizens to ensure that this matter reverberates up to local MPs, to the top tiers of all parties’ leadership teams, and beyond. This will not be an easy task, but, either for ill or for good, the consequences are potentially huge for ourselves, our environment, and our descendants.

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