Response from Victor Anderson & Rupert Read                                                May 2021

Environmental Principles – An overview

Question 5. Do you think the overview section provides an adequate foundation for policy makers to apply the environmental principles in policy-making? (Yes/No/Other – Please provide any additional information in support of your answer)

No. The Bill as currently drafted fails to include the important principle that policies should be considered in a way which takes into account the interests of members of future generations (or, more abstractly, we could say: its distributional impact over time). Without amending the Bill, it would nevertheless be possible to amend the statement so that the interests of future generations are referred to in the interpretation of the prevention principle.

Process for applying the policy statement

Question 6. Do you think step one allows policy-makers to correctly assess the potential environmental effects of their policy? (Yes/No/Other – Please provide any additional information in support of your answer)

No – There is a very strange statement on page 9: “However, for the majority of domestic policy it would unlikely to be appropriate to consider the environmental impact overseas, unless there is strong rationale for doing so.” In a large proportion of cases where there are significant environmental impacts, a large proportion of those impacts are overseas. For example, the climate emergency is global in nature and UK policies tending towards increased greenhouse gas emissions inevitably have an effect overseas. The UK economy (as Defra research has shown) has a significant impact on biodiversity overseas, for example through the food the UK imports and the land and water necessary to produce it. An understanding that the UK economy – and with that, our energy, transport, food, and housing systems – have an impact overseas is basic to any appreciation of the UK’s international obligations, for example under the UNFCCC and CBD treaties.

Question 7. Do you think step one ensures that policy-making will address the most important environmental effects? (Yes/No/Other – Please provide any additional information in support of your answer)

No. The statement on page 9 that “the environmental effects that should be considered are those which are both a) likely to occur, and b) likely to have a substantial impact” is also strange in the context of environmental policy-making. It is essential for policy-making to consider risk and not simply what is likely. For example, few until recently considered a novel Coronavirus pandemic was likely, but if the possibility of something like that occurring had been considered as a risk, we could all have been much better prepared.

In other words, it is essential, especially in the environmental domain, to take seriously ‘low probability, high impact’ events. Restricting one’s focus to ‘likely’ events only is potentially catastrophic, in that it eliminates attention to events that are not considered likely but that will be catastrophic if they occur without sufficient preparedness. This is especially important given that we are in environmental ‘terra incognita’, having passed some of what the Stockholm Resilience Centre refers to as ‘planetary boundaries’, and being in a situation of unknown seriousness in respect of several of the other such boundaries.

The financial crisis that began in 2007-8 is another example of this, which again by now we really ought to have learnt deeply from. This featured a number of cascading ‘low probability’ but ‘high impact’ events that actually happened, and severely disrupted the world’s financial system. If such a collapse happens in UK or world ecosystems, it will be of far greater seriousness, as it is not possible to bail out nature. (For detail, see the work by Read and Taleb here: https://arxiv.org/abs/1410.5787 )

All this points to the critical importance of respecting the Precautionary Principle in policy-making and therefore to the crucial importance of adequately preserving and upholding it in UK law and in institutional support for that law and for scrutiny and monitoring thereof.

(For further explication, see http://limits2growth.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/APPG-Briefing-Precautionary-Principle-online.pdf , and the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/1951/195105.htm .)

Step 2: Understanding which principles are relevant

Step two is designed to assist Ministers of the Crown, and those making policy on their behalf, in their understanding of the environmental principles. It provides a summary of the Secretary of State’s interpretation of the environmental principles, included on the face of the Environment Bill, to which following sections of the policy statement provide further detail on their application. The step explains how the five principles address different aspects of environmental impacts and how they should be considered along with other objectives in policy-making. This is intended to aid policy-makers use of their own judgement in selecting, and applying in line with the remainder of the statement, those environmental principles appropriate to their particular policy.

Question 8. Will step two assist policy-makers in selecting the appropriate environmental principles? (Yes/No/Other – Please provide any additional information in support of your answer)

Other. We would like to see reference to the interests of future generations included in the explanation of the prevention principle.

Step 3: Applying the principles

The section covering the precautionary principle includes further information for policymakers on the relationship between the principle and innovation. This additional information aims to secure the opportunities afforded by a consistent and thorough application of the principle’s risk-based approach.

Step three concludes with two further short sections. The first, providing a brief note on the interaction between the principles and environmental outcomes, is intended to reinforce prevention over mitigation. The second provides some limited examples of policy action that could be taken as a result of the application of the principles.

Question 9. Do you think step three provide a robust and sufficient framework for the application of each individual environmental principle?

 a. Integration (Yes/No/Other)

The economic benefits of policies are typically considered only over the short and medium term, whereas their environmental consequences can produce economic as well as environmental costs in the long term. So although it is reasonable to take economic considerations into account, the time period to be considered should be chosen carefully.

Great care is needed in particular not to ‘discount’ the future in ways that harm the essential interests of innocent, powerless, voiceless unborn future generations. This implies directly that excessive attention ought not to be directed towards the short and medium terms, as tends to be typical of human beings and especially of most current institutional, financial, political and media arrangements. As Lord Stern has famously pointed out, excessive discounting undermines environmental protection. It creates what can be called a ‘tragedy of the horizon’. (David Willetts’s work on protecting the interests of future generations is also relevant in this context.)

 b. Prevention (Yes/No/Other)

Other. As mentioned previously, we would like to see inclusion of the interests of future generations in the explanation of the prevention principle. We are also sceptical about the “natural capital” concept, which is not appropriate where environmental assets (e.g. species or locations) are unique and cannot readily be exchanged either for other environmental assets or other forms of capital. This question is explored in detail in our book ‘Debating Nature’s Value’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2019). (See also the website for our academic grants on this matter: https://aru.ac.uk/global-sustainability-institute-gsi/research/ecosystems-and-human-wellbeing/debating-natures-value )

 c. Rectification (Yes/No/Other)

Yes.

d. Polluter pays (Yes/No/Other)

Yes. We would like to see this principle applied much more widely, for example through meaningful penalties on corporations, and not always targeted at consumers.

e. Precautionary (Yes/No/Other) (Please provide your reasons where you have answered No or Other)

No. We find this section rather confused in its wording. “Plausible evidence of risk” cannot be a requirement for the application of the precautionary principle, because the principle applies in situations where evidence is lacking: there is a need for precaution precisely because the evidence at that point is significantly incomplete, and because waiting until ‘adequate’ evidence appears risks being waiting too long. Serious or irreversible damage could be done while research is ongoing.

The paragraph on innovation is worrying and appears to be worded so as to undermine the precautionary principle. Precaution must necessarily apply more to innovation than to the status quo, otherwise it would not be precaution. Again, asking for “plausible evidence” (and this time not simply of risk but “risk of serious or irreversible harm”) risks being a way of ignoring the whole basis of the precautionary principle, which is that it applies to situations where evidence is significantly incomplete (See https://fooledbyrandomness.com/climateletter.pdf for Read and Taleb on how this applies even to climate: https://fooledbyrandomness.com/climateletter.pdf ). We are perfectly willing to accept that a threshold should apply: “risk of serious and/or irreversible harm” is a reasonable one. But it is precisely in situations where the evidence is chronically uncertain that the Precautionary Principle may be most crucial. (For further explication, see https://agroecology-appg.org/ourwork/appg-briefings-on-the-precautionary-principle-climate-change-and-animal-welfare/ & https://agroecology-appg.org/ourwork/appg-briefing-on-the-precautionary-principle-lords-and-the-eu-withdrawal-bill/ ).

It is critical to bear in mind that, contrary to the specious way in which an ‘Innovation Principle’ has in recent years been posited in opposition to the Precautionary Principle, the truth historically is that the Precautionary Principle has frequently acted as a driver of innovation. Quite often, lazy profit- or rent- hungry firms resist regulation on the grounds that it will be ‘too costly’ for them. If the Precautionary Principle forces regulation upon them it typically ipso facto forces innovation upon them. Properly understood, the Precautionary Principle IS an Innovation Principle. (This proposition is evidenced extensively in this definitive report: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/late-lessons-2 ).

Question 10. Do you think the process for applying the policy statement (the three steps) provides a robust and sufficient framework for the application of the environmental principles as a whole? (Yes/No/Other – Please provide any additional information in support of your answer)

No – for reasons we have set out in relation to the specific principles.

Final thoughts

Question 11. Do you have any other comments on the draft policy statement which are not covered by the previous questions? (Yes/No – Please provide any additional information in support of your answer)

Yes. The exclusions set out in sub-clause 18(3) of the Environment Bill, covering defence and the Treasury, will very severely limit the application and usefulness of this statement if carried into law unamended. In practical terms, this might be the most important point of all. The Treasury / revenue and spending matters should not be exempt from fundamental environmental principles – on the very contrary. Those principles ought to be built in as essential constraints. And it is perfectly possible to find acceptable ways of making the military less eco-damaging. Moreover; an increasing percentage of armed conflicts result from environmental damage; it is self-contradictory to make military spending exempt from serious consideration of its environmental effects. Doing so fuels the very conflicts that the military is straining to be not be overwhelmed by.

Environmental principles ought to be regarded as fundamental principles, which implies the need for a wide-ranging role for the Office for Environmental Protection, providing advice across all government departments. Any exceptions to these principles should only be considered in the most extreme of emergencies.