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Paved with good intentions?

Any action, however well-intentioned, can have bad consequences, hence the saying about the road to Hell. A similar way of expressing the same idea is as the Law of Unintended Consequences. No matter how careful we are in planning and no matter how much good we want to achieve, sometimes our actions come back to bite us.

There are no easy ways to avoid this, but the important thing is to learn from the experience and not make the same mistake twice. Releasing rabbits into the wild in Australia in the late 19th Century was initially done to provide hunting, and no-one at the time would have considered the later dire consequences. In the same country, introduction of the cane toad in the 1930s resulted in a significant impact on native wildlife with little or no control of the insect pests they were intended to predate. In the UK, the early popularisation of Japanese knotweed by Victorian gardeners has led to the current situation where this highly invasive and hardy plant is a major problem in some gardens and even in the wild.

Today, invasive species are rarely the result of such inopportune and ill-considered actions. We are simply too aware of the possible problems. But there remain many other areas of life where good intentions can still lead to unwanted outcomes. In the area of environmental policy, this is partly a result of the adoption of the precautionary principle. Not only does this often preclude a proper assessment of benefits as well as risks of a particular course of action, but not taking an action because of the possible hazards can have as many downsides as taking potentially unnecessary action.

A clear example of a precautionary action taken with the best of intentions is the change of criteria for registration of pesticides, introduced a few years ago in the EU. Until 2011, pesticides had been evaluated on the basis of the risk they presented in use and whether that risk could be properly managed. In simple terms, if exposure of spray operators was limited to less than one-hundredth of the amount shown to have no  harmful effect on rats or mice, then the compound could be considered safe to use.

This of course was also subject to the compound being effective against whatever pest, disease or weed it was deployed. In recent years, the acceptance criterion has been shifted from risk to hazard. It’s no longer a question of whether a pesticide is likely to cause harm in practice without sensible precautions, but whether it is capable of causing harm. Now, an efficacious compound could be rejected because it could cause harm if skin is exposed to it, whereas the previous system would most likely have determined that the risk of skin exposure could be easily managed by wearing appropriate protective clothing.

But, while there would be a hypothetical improvement to safety from this change – the apparent intention of the new Regulation – there are also downsides. An obvious one is a gradual erosion of the number of active ingredients available as the criteria for their approval have changed. Farmers are forced to rely on fewer crop protection chemicals, giving rise to increased risk of resistance developing among targeted pests, diseases and weeds.

The results would include more spraying, greater losses of crops in the field, higher food prices and loss of farmers’ income. More food may be imported. Arguably, people would eat less of some fruits and vegetables. A more insidious risk is of the use of counterfeit products undercutting prices.

On a topic more obvious to consumers, the ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates on packaged food were introduced with the best of intentions but now result in billions of euros’ worth of perfectly wholesome food being thrown away every year. ‘Use by’ dates for perishable products have a lot of merit, but many ‘best before’ dates are simply guides to the age of a product rather than anything particularly meaningful. For sure, some products will not necessarily taste at their best, but throwing out a packet of sugar or pasta simply because it is past its date makes no sense. And as for ‘sell by’ dates, these are simply an aid to stock rotation for stores.

Some of these mistakes we learn from. We are much more circumspect about the possibility of introducing potentially invasive species into an environment where they have no natural predators. Many people are at least partially rebelling against the tyranny of ‘best before’ dates (although, to be fair, many others continue to dump food purely on the basis of a nominal date rather than the evidence of their own senses).

But safety-consciousness makes it very difficult to make approval regimes less onerous and more rational. We are probably stuck with hazard-based criteria for pesticide approval for the foreseeable future. Similarly, a significant part of the cost of a nuclear power station comes from the multiple safety systems built in, based on the assumption in the early days of the technology that the dose-response curve for radiation was linear and that there was no ‘safe’ dose.

That this is not a valid assumption is widely recognised among scientists, but the howls of protest which would undoubtedly erupt as soon as the possibility of looser safety standards was mooted makes any change to the rules an effective impossibility. This is somewhat ironic, since more realistic safety rules would probably mean that much more of our electricity in Europe (and across the world) would now be generated by nuclear fission, with an associated reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Fewer coal miners would have lost their lives and air pollution would be reduced.

Which brings me to the last example of well-intentioned policies going wrong, namely emissions reduction. Whatever you may think about the need for this, the strategy of cobbling together a raft of detailed policy instruments has caused all sorts of problems. The EU emissions trading scheme has been dogged by problems since it was founded and looks set to do little more than provide a living for middlemen and opportunities for fraud.

The unaccountable insistence on use of renewable energy rather than letting the market decide the most efficient way to reach targets has littered the countryside with unpopular wind and solar ‘farms’ which still need thermal power stations as backup, and Germany’s much-touted energiewende has given the country some of the highest electricity prices in Europe while increasing use of coal rather than gas. When will we ever learn?

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The Scientific Alliance is pleased to publish and analyis of the intermittency of UK wind energy generation for 2013-14 by Derek Partington