Science: influencing policy

Scientist conducting experiment

Greenpeace Research Laboratory: Dr Janet Cotter at work

As the scientific reputation of Greenpeace has grown, our work has expanded into the realm of policy. We now participate regularly in international treaties and conventions on chemical regulation and environmental protection – at both technical and policy levels.

In recent years these have included: the OSPAR Convention, which aims to prevent and eliminate pollution of the marine environment in the Northeast Atlantic; the Barcelona Convention, which has similar aims for the Mediterranean; and the periodic North Sea Ministers’ Conference. Even when they are regional in focus, these conventions and agreements have influence beyond their boundaries, providing a basis for progressive policy-making in other areas. Indeed, work now continues to use the ground-breaking precautionary policies agreed in these forums to achieve similar progress in other conventions and, of course, in real terms in the form of measures for improved environmental protection.

We have also worked within conventions, such as the Basel Convention, which controls the international waste trade, and the Stockholm Convention, which prohibits the manufacture and use of chemicals identified as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Work continues within the London Convention, which regulates and largely prohibits the dumping of wastes at sea and which is currently at the centre of the global debate on carbon dioxide disposal beneath the seabed (Carbon Capture and Storage).

We are also currently working within technical committees of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CDB) and the World Bank’s ongoing Agricultural Assessment, participating in the UK government’s Chemical Stakeholder Forum and advising on research programmes on Green Chemistry, and providing scientific expertise to public bodies set up to evaluate the state of radioactive contamination 20 years after the disastrous accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine.

Once persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals have been released, they cannot be controlled. And their destructive affects upon the environment and human health can never be fully understood. This is why we advise policy makers to:

  • Follow the Precautionary Principle – which, in simple terms, means “if in doubt don’t”;
  • Consider the full life-cycle of products – because chemical releases occur during production, use, and disposal in landfill and incinerators;
  • Work towards the cessation of chemical discharges – not just attempt to manage them;
  • Build a more sustainable future – where man-made chemicals do not build up in the environment and our bodies, where we place greater reliance on renewable resources and where we are not systematically depleting the basis of life itself.

Over the years, our work has been influential. The Precautionary Principle, for example, has become increasingly widely accepted as a sound and scientifically-justified basis for national and international environmental laws.

The commitments to eliminate discharges of hazardous and radioactive pollutants to the sea by 2020 agreed by most European governments under the OSPAR Commission in 1998, as well as the more recent global Stockholm Convention on elimination of POPs, have the precautionary principle at their core.

And now increasingly the focus is on the broader issues of sustainability, especially on the need to move on from the tired and often corrupted notion of sustainable development towards a future in which societies all around the world can truly protect, and live within the finite renewable limits of, our natural world.