A dangerous precedent

The UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics proposes five ethical principles and a duty to develop biofuels instead of the Precautionary Principle

(2 pages)
April, 2011

Helena Paul

English version of an article forthcoming in German in the June issue of umwelt aktuell.

The Precautionary Principle advises society to be cautious about a technology or practice where there is scientific uncertainty, ignorance, gaps in knowledge or the likelihood of outcomes we did not predict or intend. It runs counter to the optimistic notion that any negative impacts from a technology can be addressed and may provide an opportunity to develop new solutions, so contributing to economic growth. The US Chamber of Commerce dislikes the precautionary approach and prefers: “the use of sound science, cost-benefit analysis, and risk assessment when assessing a particular regulatory issue.” Its strategy is therefore to: “Oppose the domestic and international adoption of the precautionary principle as a basis for regulatory decision making.”1 Yet history reminds us that asbestos, halocarbons and PCBs seemed like miracle substances at first, but turned out to be highly problematic for human and environmental health. In many cases, early warnings were given but ignored or suppressed. We now have enough such case histories to enable us to recognise a pattern.2 The Precautionary Principle highlights this pattern in order to prevent damage before it happens. It is enshrined as Principle 15 of the UN Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and is a fundamental part of EU law.3 It was also basic to the development of the German Clean Air Act of 1974.

Precaution, principles and biofuels

The UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics describes itself as an independent body that identifies, defines and reports on ethical issues raised by developments in biology and medicine.4 Its latest report: Biofuel: ethical issues was launched in April 2011, at a time when issues such as indirect land-use change are undermining confidence in EU biofuels policy. Promises of rural regeneration, new jobs and opportunities, and advantages for smallholders in new markets remain unfulfilled and many of the initial claims have been contradicted by ensuing evidence. The Nuffield report proposes five ethical principles for biofuels production, including equitable rights and benefits, access to food and water, sustainability of production, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, just trade and equitable distribution of costs and benefits. The sixth principle says that if the first five are fulfilled, and if dangerous climate change can be averted, then “there is a duty to develop such biofuels”.5 The “duty to develop” a particular technology is in itself debateable, but the Nuffield Council’s paper also criticises the Precautionary Principle: “in fact, the use of the term precaution is not necessarily helpful in our context, as it is often either vague or overly restrictive. We believe that, instead of trying to develop an appropriate version of the precautionary approach suited to the biofuels context, our framework for an ethical evaluation of biofuels could be more useful.”6 To advocate ethical principles to replace the Precautionary Principle means replacing a regulatory and scientific approach to preventing damage with assertions of good intent. To complete them with a duty to develop biofuels is an invitation to the kind of large-scale development with irreversible impacts on which the Precautionary Principle would counsel caution in order to avoid damage. Ethical principles can only be tested after implementation, by which time the damage will have been done; they are unlikely to have a preventive effect, although they might reassure potential investors. They cannot replace the need for scientific assessment; the two are completely different in context and intent. It is therefore not surprising that some companies involved in biofuels are enthusiastic about the Nuffield principles and even claim that their projects already fulfil them. Now biofuels are receiving a boost from the airline industry, with Lufthansa, among others, carrying out trial flights with a percentage of biofuels (mainly jatropha). There have already been protests against Lufthansa’s plans; now it seems that the trials are to be supported by the German government.7 In view of the increasing number of reports of damage caused and likely to be caused8 by the EU biofuels target, we urgently need to apply the Precautionary Principle to biofuels. That means having the collective courage to foresee and avoid damage, not simply acknowledge, once the damage has been done, that we should have avoided it. Scrapping the EU biofuels target of 10% biofuels by 2020 would be a logical first step on this path.