Environmental Policy Principles – RRC International Blog

Environmental policy principles are the basis on which effective strategic change is achieved. It is important to understand them as their implementation is achieved through policy instruments such as law and economic instruments (such as environmental taxes) that environmental practitioners encounter on a regular basis. We will now take a look at the key environmental policy principles. 

Precautionary Principle

This principle works on the premise that we should prevent potential adversity even if we are not wholly sure how significant the adversity will be. It states that there is a need to implement changes without the need for absolute scientific proof, as any delay could lead to significant impacts on society and future generations. Take climate change, for example. We do not know with 100% scientific certainty the scale of the impacts in the future. But the negative implications of climate change in the worst case are huge; it is just not worth taking the risk! Society is therefore cautious and needs to implement measures to combat this issue. 

The best measures are said to have ‘no regrets’. This means that they have other benefits as well as reducing an environmental risk. With regards to climate change there are many additional benefits. These include energy security, cost savings and reduction in other air pollutants in addition to greenhouse gases.  

Polluter Pays

Polluter pays is arguably the most implemented policy principle of the ones we will cover in this post. This is where if you cause damage to the environment in some way or another then you should pay for the consequences of that damage. For example, a company has a spillage of many thousands of litres of oil that finds its way into a river and causes significant damage. The law will often dictate that the company must, in addition to a fine, pay the costs for remediation of the river.

This principle is also implemented through economic instruments. In the UK, for example, if waste is sent to landfill by an organisation then they must pay a tax for every tonne. This has worked well to reduce the amount of waste being disposed of in this way over the years. 

Producer Responsibility

In some ways this is very similar to ‘polluter pays’. However, it is a little more specific in nature, in that it puts the onus of responsibility on the manufacturer of a product. The manufacturer has a responsibility to build a product using materials which have  a lower impact, for example, or it may have to contribute towards the costs of recycling the product when it comes to the end of its life. A more common form of producer responsibility is known as ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’. This is where the onus is shared somewhat between all or most of the members in the supply chain. This principle is implemented through a number of laws covering packaging, vehicles, electrical equipment and batteries. 

Product Stewardship

This is a principle that covers protection of the environment that centres on a product. In some ways it is similar to producer responsibility. However, here the onus is placed on all those involved in a product’s life cycle, not just the producer or the full supply chain. It can be achieved in many different ways but common approaches include better design, such that a product is more durable and does not have to be replaced as often, during use it uses energy from renewable sources and at the end of its life there is infrastructure in place to ensure that it is recycled. It considers the full life cycle and ensures that techniques are in place to control the impact on the environment. 

Life Cycle Thinking 

This principle involves considering the full life cycle, from cradle to grave, and implementing measures to reduce impact where the risk is significant. Traditionally, environmental management has concentrated on the manufacturing phase of a product. However, for many products the significant impacts occur at other stages in the life cycle. You can discover more about this principle from a previous blog post HERE

Final Note on Environmental Policy Principles

Understanding the different policy principles such as the ones we have covered above is important. These are the basis of legal and economic instruments that most environmental practitioners will encounter on an almost daily basis. 

John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MIEMA

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With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.



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