Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Precaution as a science-politics game

Table 1 illustrates the dilemma facing a decision maker confronted with a demand for action yet unsure of the pay-off. The options for action are:

1. Do nothing but monitor the environmental situation. This is nowadays politically untenable, but where uncertainties are very great or the environmental system is regarded as tolerant it may still be a sensible course.

2. Do nothing but embark on a programme of research. This is the desired British position, at least as expressed by the government in its environmental policy statements of 1990 (HM Government, 1990). Of course, if the UK government were serious about this view it should be supporting research, at least to the point where a reasonable judgement could be made over the degree of advance investment required.

Table 1 Pay-off matrix: science, economics, and politics in precaution



Monitor and
do nothing
and do
and take
action and
No serious
High pay-off Prudent
Catastrophe Loss of
political and

3. Combine research with action to contain pollutants. This is a form of "environmental insurance," and is a tactic adopted by the North Sea states. It is vital that the research mode combines both scientific investigation and economic valuation of removal or status quo, based on sensitivity analysis and public debate.

4. Take action in advance of definitive/final research. This is the pressure for making precaution legitimate, in which science is subservient, or at least secondary. This tactic can result in avoidable economic waste in the minor damage case, but can be vital in the case of irreversible damage.

It can be seen that the optimal strategy requires a combination of innovative science, economics, and politics, working sequentially and progressively. This is why we need to embark on extending science into the realms of economic and political analysis, to weld the concepts of negotiation, adaptation, and learning into political institutions and economic valuations. At the same time we need to find ways of depicting the outcomes of each of these pay-offs so that the interested public can negotiate and participate in the outcome as it weaves its way backwards and forwards through the matrix. Public involvement based on well-founded images of possible futures and their economic consequences provides one way of characterizing the valuation of uncertain environmental situations. It is this "negotiated science" that becomes one of the off-springs of the precaution principle.

Precaution on the global stage

In the Bergen Conference of 1990 that followed up the response by the wealthy northern countries to the Brundtland Report on sustainable development, there was a frightful row over the meaning and role of the precaution principle for global policy and diplomacy. In her opening address, the Norwegian Prime Minister, Mrs Brundtland, called for action in advance of certainty: "If we err in our decisions affecting the future of our children and our planet, let us err on the side of caution," she declared. The scientific community, one of five non-governmental organizations directly involved with the Conference, provided this wording: "After taking into account the possible costs of being wrong, it will be better to find out we have been roughly right in due time than to be precisely right too late" (NAVF, 1990).

It is evident that the furore over the precise wording also applied to the various degrees of commitment by the major greenhouse gas emitting nations to limit their emissions. The Americans are far from convinced of the scientific argument and until now have remained opposed to any specific commitment to reduction. The British will only lower emissions if other countries follow suit, but will not take a lead. The Japanese remain ambivalent, but are now willing to accept the European Community target of stabilization of CO2 by the year 2000, should all its competitors also follow suit. The trouble, of course, is that greenhouse gas reduction cannot be undertaken on a country-by-country basis if it is to be effective. It requires programmed and comprehensive commitment at least by all major emitters, together with patterns of technology transfer and training provision for the developing world, so that they can develop in a manner that does not create more global warming than is saved by reductions in the North. So far, none of this is forthcoming; hence the political and legal interest in extending the principle of precaution to international environmental conventions.

There are some dangers in getting too carried away with the application of precaution at any cost. In the absence of comparative risk assessment, the consequences of curtailing potentially beneficial activity and creating another set of unforeseeable risks for an unprepared society could be greater than proceeding step by step with prudent caution. This is in part the lesson of the North Sea algal blooms. To reduce greenhouse gases willy-nilly could cripple an economy with no demonstrable evidence of a net advantage at the margin. Prudent science coupled to genuine dialogue with the public, linked in turn to meaningful images of possible outcomes for staged investment in the curtailment of environmental nuisance, is a better synthesis for precaution than precaution as an end in itself. This seems to be the way forward on the international and global stage.

Cameron and Abouchar (1991) have sought to identify four key principles for a legal definition of precaution in international law:

1. A threshold of perceived threat against which advance action would be deemed justifiable. The degree of threat need only be established by common consent, but could be coupled to compensatory exchanges of technology or financial resources to facilitate early action.

2. A burden of proof on the proto-polluter to show that a proposed policy or action will not cause actual harm. Costanza and Perrings (1990) have proposed that nations and/or aid agencies and/or international corporations deposit an environmental performance bond in advance of any investment, the money to be payable for any unforeseeable damage or hardship, or to be returned to the depositor as a sign of best practice. In both arguments the shift of the burden of proof passes from the aggrieved, who are usually the most vulnerable, to the promoter of change, who is usually the most culpable but capable of avoiding downstream and transnational externalities.

3. A duty of positive obligation that would require decision makers to be fully informed about the possible consequences of environmental change. This duty, which amounts to a comprehensive environmental audit of policies and programmer, would have to be backed by enforceable scrutiny of the justification for action.

4. A liability for omission that would fall upon any party that failed to act on the grounds of insufficient scientific evidence, bearing in mind the threshold principle (above) and the duties of due care and attention.

The objective here is to establish internationally a set of legal principles that would become incorporated into national law, citizens' rights, and full-scale audits of policies, programmes, and projects. This was always the intention of the original provisions of the US National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 which created the practice of "environmental impact assessment." Now that the European Community has committed itself to a process of taking into account the environmental implications of all policies - agriculture, transport, energy, overseas trade - before action, there is scope for extending the precaution principle across a wider range of international action.

Table 2 The extension of precaution

Constitutional principle
Framework law
Substantive conventions on climate, biodiversity, and international trade
Administrative procedures, both quasi-judicial and inquisitorial, to discover facts and uncertainties and define staged actions
Legal arrangements on liability, burden of proof, fiscal incentives, citizens' action
Precautionary remedies, such as deposit bonds, injunctions, mandamus
Monitoring and enforcement agencies linking national to regional to international obligation and coupled to an expert secretariat
Access to information, and rights to be informed, via state of the environment reports and environmental audits
Policy audits by governments, official agencies, corporations and international regimes that would be examinable and related to an explicit duty of environmental care

Source: Based on Cameron and Abouchar, 1991.

Cameron and Abouchar (1991) have produced a framework for national and international evolution of the principle, which is presented in table 2. The diagram summarizes much of what was discussed in this chapter. For the issue of precaution must not be confined to law, but to social change generally and fundamental principles of justice and welfare. This encompasses rights to know and to be informed, rights to seek redress over legitimate grievances, rights of international agencies to place pressure on non-complying states or agencies through some kind of consensus over environmental security and cooperation, and rights of sharing and exchanging information, understanding, and technology so that the weak and vulnerable are not suffocated in the stampede to save the world.


Birkenshaw, P. 1992. "Overcoming Impediments on Access to Information." In: E. Likke and D. Fluharty, eds. Achieving Environmental Goals: The Concept and Practice of Environmental Performance Review. Oslo: Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

Cameron, T., and J. Abouchar. 1991. "The Precautionary Principle. A Fundamental Principle of Law and Policy for the Protection of the Global Environment." Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 14, no. 1: 1-27.

Conway, C. R., and G. N. Pretty. 1991. Unwelcome Harvest. Agriculture and Pollution. London: Earthscan.

Costanza, R., and C. Perrings. 1990. "A Flexible Assurance Bonding System for Improved Environmental Management." Ecological Economics 2: 57-75.

Department of the Environment. 1990. UK Guidance Note on the Ministerial Declaration, Third International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea. London: Department of the Environment.

Dietz, F. J., U. E. Simonis, and J. van der Straaten. 1992. Sustainability and Environmental Policy, Restraints and Advances. Berlin: Edition Sigma.

HM Government. 1990. This Common Inheritance: Britain's Environmental Strategy. London: HMSO. (Cm360.)

International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea (ICPNS). 1990. The Implementation of the Ministerial Declaration of the Second Internafional Conferences on the Pollution of the North Sea. The Hague/London.

Interim Quality Status Report. 1990. 1990 Interim Report on the Quality Status of the North Sea. The Hague/London.

Johnson, S. P., and G. Corcelle. 1989. The Environmental Policy of the European Communities. London: Graham & Trotman.

NAVF. 1990. Sustainable Development, Science and Policy. The Conference Report. Oslo: Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities.

Nitze, W. A. 1990. The Greenhouse Effect. Formulating a Convention. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs.

O'Riordan, T. 1991. "Towards a Vernacular Science for Environmental Change." In: L. E. Roberts and A. Weale, eds., Innovation and Environmental Risk. London: Belhaven Press, pp. 149-162.

Ramchandani, R., and D. W. Pearce. 1991. Alternative Approaches to Setting Effluent Quality Standards: Precautionary, Critical Load and Cost Benefit Approaches. Report no. LR93. Medmenham: Water Research Centre.

Rehbinder, E. 1988. "Vorsorgeprinzip im Umweltrecht und preventive Umweltpolitik." In: U. E. Simonis, ea., Präventive Umweltpolitik. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, pp. 129-141.

Von Moltke, K. 1988. "The Vorsorgeprinzip in West German Environmental Policy." In: Royal Commission on Environmental Protection, Best Practicable Environmental Option. London, pp. 57-70.

Weale, A., T. O'Riordan, and L. Kramme. 1991. Controlling Pollution in the Round. London/Bonn: Anglo-German Foundation.

13. Transfer of clean(er) technologies to developing countries

Sergio C. Trindade


Most of the environmental problems of today result from the technological choices of yesterday. Therefore, ecological restructuring of the world economy calls for the choice of cleaner technologies now and in the future. In this connection, "industrial metabolism" may be a powerful analytical concept for the assessment of candidate technologies.

As the world goes through an extraordinary period of reorganization politically, economically and militarily - the environment has become a concern of decision makers everywhere. In this context an ecological orientation of policies could emerge, based on the global industrial metabolism concept that implies both the delinking of economic growth from energy- and materials-intensive inputs and preventive approaches to economic restructuring.

Countries and organizations are affected differently by these developments. Industrial countries, by and large, have the knowledge and the financial resources necessary to respond to these challenges. But most countries on earth are small developing countries, which have limited capacity to take initiatives and must be helped towards a sustainable development path. Some organizations fear the additional costs of economic restructuring whereas others, who are ready for it, see many opportunities ahead.

Any analysis of the transfer of technologies to developing countries thus requires the use and understanding of several key concepts: sustainable development; clean technology; industrial metabolism; knowledge and technology transfer; and endogenous capacity, i.e. the capacity for managing technological change.

Sustainable development

The World Commission on Environment and Development, in its report (the Brundtland Report), considered sustainable development to be a process of change that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In most industrial countries, environmentally sound development is now a key concept. For most developing countries, the central concern is still development; to them the environment is at best a subsidiary dimension of development.

Ekins (1992) analyses sustainable development by looking at sustainability and development and their interaction. On sustainability he says that in order for economic be environmentally sustainable, certain conditions need to be adhered to concerning the use of renewable and nonrenewable resources, the emission of wastes and associated environmental impacts. These conditions can be defined. The first principle of sustainable development is that these conditions have absolute priority over GNP growth.

Ekins states further that development and GNP growth are not the same thing: "Development is a qualitative improvement, an achievement of potential. GNP growth is a quantitative increase. There are many examples of GNP growth resulting from, or in, maldevelopment." Therefore, the second principle of sustainable development is that "people and societies must be the subjects of their development, its creators and implementors, based on their knowledge and resources, rather than its objects or even its victims." (Ekins, 1992).

Both poverty and affluence have caused environmental impacts in the past and are likely to do so in the future unless increased awareness of the environment is converted into initiatives that address sustainable development from a global point of view.

Environmentally sound technology, clean(er) technology

"Environmentally sound, and clean(er) technology" are relative concepts in time and space. The time dimension relates to the availability of knowledge. For instance, asbestos was implicitly considered environmentally sound until its negative consequences on human health became known.

The space dimension has a societal (economic, political, cultural) connotation. For example, information about the role of CFCs in destroying the stratospheric ozone layer is widely available, but the readiness to take action varies considerably, irrespective of the fact that many countries ratified the Montreal protocol.

This is why, although technology - a form of knowledge - is crucial, it does not constitute a sufficient condition for achieving sustainable development.

"Clean(er) technology" can be understood as equivalent to environmentally sound technology, with special reference to industrial processes in which the management of wastes constitutes a major issue. According to De Larderel (1991), the clean(er) technology concept involves a new global approach to production:

All phases of the life cycle of a product or of a process should be addressed with the objective of prevention or minimization of short and longterm risks to humans and the environment. This includes a "cradle-to-grave" approach, minimizing wastes and emissions into air, water and soil, pollution prevention as well as minimizing energy consumption and the use of raw materials. It means not only developing new technologies but also good operating practices.

Industrial metabolism

The "industrial metabolism" concept may help us to understand better the complex chain of steps from raw materials and energy inputs to final products, and enhances awareness of the concomitant production of wastes and by-products: "Industrial metabolism encompasses both production and consumption, the entire system for the transformation of materials, the energy and value-yielding process essential to economic development" (Ayres, 1989).

Application of the industrial metabolism concept involves detailed accounting of the flows of materials and energy through human activities, and so helps to reveal opportunities to save energy and materials (with little or no investment), thus resulting in decreased resource ex- But it has been justly observed that "the history of the chemical industry is one of finding new uses for what were formerly waste products" (Ayres, 1989), a process that may be enhanced by the right price signals.

Sometimes the disposal of the product itself, after its useful life, constitutes an environmental hazard. The industrial metabolism concept thus calls for a long-term global perspective that will stimulate the cutting down of wastes and increase the recycling of residues.

Knowledge and technology transfer

Knowledge must be holistic or integral to be useful for sustainable development. Knowledge has many facets, such as science, technology, management, organization, etc.

History shows cases where countries - such as France - had a long tradition of scientific excellence without, until recently, technological prowess. The reverse situation - as in the case of Japan - can also be found.

For developing countries, Enos' perception may be relevant: A technically competent nation has to climb through many rungs of the competence ladder.... Its rungs represent accomplishments; the lower, the simpler and more easily attained; the upper, the more complex, attained with more difficulty.... The highest rung represents ... a society which, having achieved it, is then capable of choosing, utilising and advancing any appropriate technique. (Enos, 1991)

Technologies carry with them a set of built-in decisions that reflect markets, level of economic development, attitudes, directions, and policies that emanate from their place of origin. When they are transferred to another country they tend implicitly to transfer the values attached to them. Consequently, when clean(er) technology is to be transferred from one place to another, there are at least two key issues to consider.

The first is the effectiveness of the transfer, i.e. the fitting of the built-in socio-economic options of the source country or organization to the conditions prevailing in the receiving country or organization.

The second is the efficiency of the process, i.e. the extent of absorption by the receiving end of the essential skills and knowledge - a feature of capacity of the transferred technology.

This is why sustainable development requires from the developing countries the creation of an array of competences that support an ploitation and environmental pollution (and even in lower running costs).

Although wastes constitute an environmental issue, they may not have a sufficiently high market value to warrant further processing. autonomous decision-making capacity for transfer or development of clean(er) technology.

Years ago, at a conference on petrochemicals in Brazil, I was confronted with a statement by a representative of a transnational corporation. He said that technology was not really worth discussing because it was not a major cost element: it made up, at the most, 5 per cent of the sales price of typical petrochemicals. The statement was factually correct but it hid an important dimension - related to the efficiency concept described above - which entirely justified the discussion. The point can be illustrated with the help of a simple equation that defines the perceived value of technology (Trindade, 1980):

P* = $o/Q

where P* is the perceived value of knowledge; $, is the going (commercial) value of knowledge; and Q is a cumulative measure of competence, skills, and endogenous capacity.

The graphic representation of the argument clearly communicates the idea that the perceived value of technology depends on the cumulative skills of the buyer and the seller of technology (fig. 1). For a given technology the resulting curve is a hyperbola, asymptotic to both axes. The range of interest for the present argument is Q within 0.0 and 1.0.

The above equation is simply a convenient way of arguing the importance of the different value perceptions of the buyer and seller of technology, which depend on their respective cumulative knowledge. For a given clean technology it is possible to move down the slide of the curve. The perceived value of an increment of knowledge or technology declines as an organization learns over a period of time, i.e. increases its level of competence, skills, and endogenous capacity.

The intuitive argument above suggests that if a society or an organization is at a level of competence equivalent to Q close to zero, not even all the money in the world would make a difference in the short term. It would thus be useless to promote the idea of industrial metabolism on a global scale if the majority of countries lacked the capability to implement it.

That is another way of saying that the perceived value of knowledge to a society (or a given stakeholder) can be very large for those who have limited knowledge (as Q approaches zero, P* tends toward infinity). Buyers in this situation, however, are ill equipped to make choices about clean(er) technologies and have limited bargaining power. Consequently, the wide difference in value perception may lead to disagreement between the transferring parties.

Fig. 1 The value of technology depends on the skills of the buyer

By contrast, when the recipient (a particular stakeholder) is at the "state-of-the-art" level, the perceived value of knowledge equals the commercial value (for Q = 1.0, P* = $0). In this case buyers are competent choosers and have strong bargaining power; little disagreement will arise between the transferring parties.

Concretely, for a given technology, it is possible to increase knowledge, that is, to decrease perceived value along the curve (as Q increases, P* decreases). This argument applies particularly to the transfer of clean(er) technologies to developing countries, as they require a higher level of cumulative knowledge.

It is also important to note that knowledge that is not used can be lost to a society. The historical loss of traditional technologies (e.g. iron-making in Africa) illustrates the point. Some of these technologies have been cleaner than the "modern" technologies that replaced them.

Today, even if clean(er) technologies were given away free of charge, the majority of the developing countries could not make use of them because of lack of absorptive and implementation capacities. Clean(er) technologies can only be effectively utilized when the recipient (country or corporation) possesses an endogenous decision-making capability. When such "endogenous capacity" is lacking, progress in handling environmental issues (at country or corporation level) requires the building of competence in relevant fields through experience, training, and education (UN, 1989).

Endogenous capacity

A society that is developing should be a society where productivity and valueadded are rising, and, in the future, where clean(er) technologies (and products) are increasingly penetrating the market. This brings in the issue of equity - that is, the sharing of the benefits of development.

In general, development should be equitable to all stakeholders in the development process, that is, all segments of society that are affected by the process of development. Furthermore, to be sustainable development should also be equitable to future generations. Implicit in this conclusion is the importance of knowledge in the development process. Sustainable development can only be achieved with knowledge and by a decision-making capacity - sensible and autonomous - at all levels of society. This capacity to manage technological change can be called endogenous capacity. It seems that a new frame of reference is required, in which the capacity to make autonomous and sensible decisions on the choice of technologies is more important than the development of the technologies themselves. Achieving "technological autarchy" has at least become an obsolete pursuit, since all countries in the world import technology, some more, and others less.

The current universal trend of more participatory decision-making in human affairs is stimulating a novel approach in which more, and eventually all, relevant stakeholders in society partake. Since both poverty and affluence have brought about environmental problems, albeit of a different nature, stakeholders at all levels of income must engage in dialogue to help set new priorities, regarding development in an environmentally sound(er) way.

Technology change will be central to the management of development and the environment in the future. As such, future ventures will be intensive in knowledge, information, measurement, and concept. This is particularly true of radical approaches to design based on the idea of industrial metabolism.

Endogenous capacity can be defined as the set of human and institutional capabilities necessary to address the question of managing clean(er) technology, either indigenously developed or adapted from abroad. Building endogenous capacity is thus a difficult task and will take time, often decades. While every country has some indigenous capabilities in science and technology, such as infrastructure, scientists and technicians, research institutions, etc., these are not sufficient in themselves to respond to the demands of an environmentally sound development process. Endogenous capacity goes beyond indigenous capacity, as it also includes the ability to understand and manage the linkages to the educational system, the productive sectors, the social structure, and the processes of governance and decisionmaking.

Endogenous capacity is also time-bound in the sense that, though it can be acquired, unless it is maintained it will be lost. In sum, the capacity for environmentally sound development is one of participatory decision-making and implementation in the broadest context.

Crucial elements of endogenous capacity-building

The following, to my mind, are the crucial elements of endogenous capacitybuilding that facilitate the move from concept to reality:

1. Provision of a favourable policy climate, based on equity concerns and on participatory decision-making; stakeholders' dialogues will help people focus on opportunities for market stimulation and public intervention regarding clean(er) technologies and products.

2. Generation of portfolios of prioritized initiatives on clean(er) technologies, to guide programmes and projects in focused niches.

3. Domestic and international research partnerships to overcome critical mass limitations.

4. Provision of basic education, including environmental education; this should include emphasis on the education of women.

The implementation of these crucial elements requires domestic resources, reallocated to promote the priorities agreed upon, as well as newly conceived international cooperation schemes in support of clean(er) technology transfer. While this is an ongoing process in most countries, history suggests that linkages are missing between science and technology initiatives and the mainstream of socioeconomic activities - that there has not been an adequate consensus among the relevant stakeholders, and that equity has often been neglected.

Thus, technology assessment must be expanded to encompass the industrial metabolism concept in its methodologies. It should constitute a basic approach for the future regarding sourcing, developing, adapting and evaluating technologies (Trindade, 1991). After all, the environment is fast becoming an important source of business opportunities. Gustav Berle's The Green Entrepreneur (1991) could be a useful primer, with a wealth of cases that illustrate the fundamental role of private initiative in converting sustainable development into concrete business propositions. Although it concentrates on the United States, it could inspire entrepreneurs in the developing countries as well.

Governments are stakeholders with special responsibilities. Sometimes they are representative of the population, often they are not. The current wave of demands for participatory, transparent, societal decision-making that is sweeping all societies on earth offers an ideal opportunity for governments to play a more constructive role in building up, among all relevant stakeholders, the consensus that is necessary for sustainable development. The resource demands raised by environmental concerns compound, of course, the debt burden of the developing countries, and therefore call for new concepts in international cooperation. It is thus expected that more open and participatory decision-making will enhance equity, both intranational and international, in future development strategies.

International cooperation for clean(er) technologies

It has been proposed (UNCED, 1991a) that each country will need to develop policies and programmes to implement Agenda 21 (the action plan adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED). How can international cooperation promote clean(er) technology transfer, particularly to the large number of small developing countries which lack the critical mass of human and other resources to cope with the future?

One response to this challenge is the establishment of a variety of research and technology partnerships, supported by international funds to sponsor a network of centres in various regions of the world. This network of research, training, and technology transfer could focus, for instance, on chlorofluorocarbon substitutes; cleaner production processes and hazardous wastes; energy efficiency; cleaner coal technologies; sustainable biological production systems, etc.

These international partnerships should be conceived in a flexible fashion and operate as facilitators under the overall guidance of competent international bodies. One of their roles should be as demandoriented clearing-houses for their technologies. They could make use of ongoing initiatives such as: (a) UNEP's International Cleaner Production Information Clearinghouse (ICPIC); the clearing-house on CFC-free technologies under the Montreal Protocol; (b) OZONETT, an international private clearing-house on CFC-free technologies, linked to ICPIC; and (c) CADETT and other clearing-houses on energyefficient technologies (UNCED, 1991b).


Contents - Previous - Next