Science communication


Innovation principle vs precautionary principle?

Text: Hanna Sjölund

It has come to the attention of the Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre that there is a risk that the Treaty-based precautionary principle may be weakened by the newly introduced concept called the innovation principle. Today the European Parliament is set to vote on the future framework programme for research and innovation: Horizon Europe, which is the first legislative file to include the innovation principle.

One of the Baltic Sea Centre’s focus areas is environmental pollutants and how hazardous substances may affect the marine environment and its organisms. In order to sufficiently protect the environment, the precautionary principle is crucial. Science can rarely at an early enough stage provide decision-makers with comprehensive scientific research, including large-scale proven effects, that would be needed if wanting to take political measures to limit hazardous substances based on aggregated evidence. Rather, what is needed is to be able to act politically before full evidence of environmental impacts is available, i.e. in the name of the precautionary principle, in order to prevent irreversible negative effects.

A strong contributing factor to the difficulty of rapidly obtaining large-scale results is that pollutants today are not coming from few sources of large emissions of few chemicals, but rather from many small sources with many types of chemicals (such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides and chemicals in consumer articles). These diffuse emissions may when mixed in the environment contribute to cocktail effects where the overall effect in the ecosystem is known far later.

Examples of measures based on the precautionary principle include national bans on added microplastics in cosmetic products or requirements for advanced wastewater treatment. We believe that the precautionary principle should also take precedence for persistent chemicals with slow degradation that remain in the environment for a long time and where the levels of these increase as long as emissions continue. Because even if it is not yet proven that a group of substances are toxic and/or may accumulate in organisms, the property of a chemical being persistent should be included as a separate criterion for regulation within REACH.

With this said, we are worried that the precautionary principle risks being undermined if it is to be equated or valued against the potentially contradictory innovation principle. Especially when it comes to ensuring that harmful chemicals do not cause irreversible effects in the marine environment.