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In the early 1990s, the amount and scope of environmental legislation increased dramatically. In particular, the Habitats Directive, emanating from Brussels, had to be implemented in the UK by the Habitats Regulations.

Industry in general, and maritime industry in particular were concerned about the potential abuse of the Precautionary Approach which must be applied in those cases where scientific data is incomplete. A clear statement was hammered out and included in the original Habitats Regulations published in 1994. Here is an extract.

In paragraph 2.7 of the Guide to the Preparation and Application of Management Schemes under the habitats regulations it says:

“This [the precautionary principle] can be applied to all forms of environmental risk.  It suggests that where there are real threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used be as a reason for postponing measures to prevent such damage that are likely to be cost effective.  It does not however imply that the suggested cause of such damage must be eradicated unless proved to be harmless and it cannot be used as a licence to invent hypothetical consequences.  Moreover, it is important, when considering the information available, to take account of the associated balance of likely costs and benefits.  When the risks of serious or irreversible environmental damage are high, and the cost penalties are low, the precautionary principle justifies a decisive response.  In other circumstances, where a lesser risk is associated with a precautionary response that is likely to be very expensive, it could well be better to promote further scientific research than to embark upon premature action.”

Industry could live with this statement provided it was used sensibly. But it is a sad fact that when the regulations were updated, this statement was quietly ditched. Was it a little inconvenient for the environment bureaucracy?

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