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8. The North Sea

The North Sea basin
Resources and depletion
Warning signs
Trajectory and regional dynamics

Julie Argent and Timothy O'Riordan

The study of critical environmental regions, as noted in chapter 1, addresses the fundamental issue of natural resources and the capacity of the environment to assimilate increasing waste loads. This concept is essentially anthropogenic in application. Some areas of the globe exceed carrying capacity without regard to human needs; such cases are considered elsewhere in this volume but not in this chapter. Rather, we address growing environmental endangerment in three ways:

evident degradation, where the capacity of the resource base to meet current basic human needs and to ensure survival for those already living in the region is palpably overstretched;

potential degradation, where the resource base is not yet depleted to the point where the life-support requirements of the existing population are being inadequately met, but where the legitimate requirements of a likely expanded population would not be met by the existing resource base, even with known improvements in technology and management;

incipient degradation, where the current demands on a particular resource base are not yet causing significant deterioration, but where the capacity for serious deterioration is possible within the foreseeable future (a state of endangerment, as used in this volume), and where manageable opportunities exist to avoid reaching a state of criticality.

The first of these situations is consistent with the notion of "environmental endangerment" as used in this volume, the latter two with "environmental impoverishment."

In the first case, not even major injections of cash, technology, and skill-training can overcome the overwhelming dilemma of non-sustainability. In the second example, there is scope for technological and managerial innovation to create recovery, though that opportunity will depend upon international aid and long-term investments in promoting self-help. In the third case, criticality is anticipated and avoided by the injection of effort to create a more environmentally sustainable future for the region.

Of obvious importance is the degree to which the inhabitants of each of the three types of regions have the capabilities to recognize their dilemma, establish appropriate policies to reduce the impact, and invest in suitable alternative strategies to forestall criticality for the foreseeable future. This means:

- information: comprehensive environmental data-gathering on the state of resource availability and resource depletion.

- prediction: sound and reliable models of likely environmental out comes following postulated developments, policy changes, or both.

- adaptability: the capability to assess and adapt to criticality either within the region or through effective international effort.

- purposeful adjustment: the capacity to deploy policy shifts, invest in appropriate technology, and train managers and analysts in the practice of sustainable development.

- political will: the political will, backed by informed and supportive public opinion, to embark on a programmed course of action.

The North Sea fits into the category of "incipient degradation," and its relatively wealthy and environmentally concerned surrounding populations have the capability of putting into effect the listed management criteria. The North Sea has been the subject of intensive scientific investigation for more than three decades and is currently undergoing one of the most comprehensive environmental modelling exercises ever undertaken for a specific region, the MANS (management analysis North Sea) study currently being developed by the North Sea Directorate of the Netherlands Ministry of Transport and Public Works. In addition, various natural science research councils of the basin states have embarked upon a cooperative programme of fundamental scientific investigation aimed at tracing the flows and concentrations of all measurable pollutants for land, air, and water to the North Sea. Finally there is the important exercise of the Quality Status Report (QSR 1987), a state-of-the-environment analysis of the North Sea (see below).

The International North Sea Conferences (INSCs) have supported much of this scientific work. Initiated in Bremen in 1984, these have subsequently convened at three-year intervals in London (1987) and in The Hague (1990). Attending the conferences were environment ministers of the eight North Sea basin states (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom), as well as other interested parties (e.g. the European Communities and pressure groups). These ministerial conferences provide vital political momentum for promoting the cause of scientific research and for welding ambiguous or indeterminate scientific findings into a pragmatic political framework for action that is truly international. For both the 1987 and 1990 meetings, the conference commissioned major state-of-the-art reviews of the North Sea in the form of a Quality Status Report in 1987 and an Interim Quality Status Report (IQSR) in 1990. Much of the material that follows is based on these documents, together with a critique published by Greenpeace International (Rose 1990) and an assessment of North Sea pollution by various authors (Salomons et al. 1988).

Because the conference is ministerial, it has the moral and political power (but not legal force) to create collective policy for all of the eight states and to ensure compliance. The precise degree of compliance depends on national governments. Generally, much collective pressure exists to act harmoniously in good faith, but this depends on the specificity of the targets that are set. In essence, it is a high-powered politico-scientific forum with the capability of creating binding policy on member governments. But it would be unwise to underplay the future role of the two existing non-political, but scientifically important, pollution-control commissions, namely the Oslo and Paris Commissions. These intergovernmental bodies have responsibility for conducting scientific research, for coordinating data, and for advising governments on the appropriate regulation of wastes entering the air and from the land. Additionally, these commissions are very important for scientific mediation, for information exchange, and for clarifying areas of uncertainty. They also help to set implicit procedures for state-driven regulation, they provide a forum for specialist intergovernmental task forces to thrash out specific problems, and they serve as a focal point for monitoring subsequent actions. In short, the commissions are politico-scientific in nature and act symbiotically with the ministerial conferences, at least for the present.

It is unlikely that the ministerial conferences will ever supplant the work of these two commissions. To begin with, they cover an area much larger than the North Sea, including an important part of the northeast Atlantic. Secondly, the commissions provide a mechanism for ensuring at least a degree of implementation compared with the ministerial conferences, which have no effective power to enforce compliance with their final declarations of intent.

The era of international regulation a decade or so ago was mostly a matter of technical analysis and resolution by compromise, based upon the most workable outcome. In the past the commissions looked for solutions primarily on a substance-by-substance basis and with a sector-by-sector approach. With the adoption of the principles of precaution and best-available technology, particularly with regard to noxious substances that may be persistent and liable to accumulate, the commissions are beginning to adopt a more holistic approach.

This volume is as much concerned with the causes of transformation, or the regional dynamics of change, as it is with degrees of criticality. According to Kates, Turner, and Clark (1990,10-11), the key driving forces for transformation are population growth, technological innovation, and institutional rigidity - all of which can produce adverse outcomes for both humans and nature. In the case of the North Sea, population growth is less of an issue than per capita consumption patterns, which tend to be resource intensive and cause environmental damage far from the point of consumption. They are in turn encouraged by a combination of faulty pricing, insufficient regulation on precautionary lines, and the creation of a false consciousness among consumers. The last arises from a lack of scientific knowledge of cause and effect, an unwillingness to transmit information in ways meaningful for the consumer, and the promotion of personal comfort and status-driven needs of material well-being, all at the expense of environmental systems. In short, the driving forces lie in institutional failure, which shows up in pricing, in regulation, in science, in raising awareness, and in the maldistribution of power that feeds the voice of progress at the expense of environmental stability. This chapter examines how this institutional failure is being recognized and overcome, at least up to a point.

The "commons" of the North Sea is still technically a free-access resource. But politically it has become nowadays the property of eight member governments that regard it essentially as a non-sustainable resource that requires safeguarding by the application of the precautionary principle. This principle requires appropriate levels of preventive action, by common agreement and hence by obligation in international law, in advance of scientific proof of degradation in situations in which the likely gains of taking measures are reasonably guaranteed to save more costly losses in the future. Under the precautionary principle, certain substances are deemed undesirable in the open environment because their properties are potentially harmful not only to ecosystems and human health, even though absolute scientific proof is not yet available. Currently, much dispute exists about how far the precautionary principle should extend to substances such as nutrients, low-level radioactive wastes, and non-toxic industrial wastes, for which environmental effects are less immediately problematic. Here the scientific case for pre-emptive action is less clear, so precaution takes on more of a political than a scientific hue.

To clarify this point, it should be stressed that the precautionary principle has four important components:

1. The principle of preventive action. This applies where a particular environmental change agent is known, on the basis of existing scientific research, to create a hazard, even though the hazard may not yet be fully assessed.

2. The principle of playing safe. This applies where the scientific prognosis cannot be proven, but where long-term danger is likely. The persistent and big-accumulative chemicals are usually controlled on this basis.

3. The principle of environmental insurance. Here the workings of environmental systems are not fully understood, so it is regarded as vital to protect the capacity of such systems to cope with further change.

4. The principle of intrinsic bequest. Increasingly society wants to bequeath in trust, for future generations, the functioning of integral life-support systems.

In general, however, only the principle of preventive action is applied, and then only to hazardous substances.

The North Sea Conference has, in effect, adopted the mantle of a manager of an international commons regime. In practice the mantle is a little flimsy, since it bears no guarantee of infrastructural political commitment. The issue in point turns on how much scientific consensus on key North Sea environmental changes and their causes and solutions can be reached before political pressure mounts a case for action. In the longer term, the European Union may well take over the role of the INSC, since, by 2000 or earlier, all the North Sea basin states could well be members of an expanded European Union. The INSC should remain as a quasi-political, quasi-scientific working meeting, cooperating with both of the commissions to undertake the scientific and technical assessments.

In this transition, the notion of science itself may require thorough reexamination. What is morally acceptable to an informed and choice-conscious public, well aware of the possible consequences of various possible courses of action, should become the basis for innovative cost-benefit analysis. Ideally, investigating the science of natural systems should encompass wider social, ethical, and political relationships to the point at which the management and articulation of policy options to respond to emerging criticality become the full science of environmental learning. In this regard, the North Sea experience has much to offer for the reformulation of the role of science in environmental management, inasmuch as it can indicate how commons such as the North Sea can be appraised, evaluated, and policed by a collective political entity with supranational, but still democratic, powers.

In summary, for the study of critical environmental regions, the North Sea experience provides a series of lessons:

• Prolonged scientific analysis of resource use and depletion trends can provide a meaningful database for use by the international community.

• Acceptance of the precautionary principle encourages the linkage of scientific prediction to political values and ethics, extending science to the realms of social learning and informed choice.

• International political forums are required to ensure that sovereign states reach and enforce collective environmental agreements, even when individual states may not like the outcome. This supranational democracy may well become a permanent feature of critical-region management.

• Degradation of life-support resources should be set in a global framework and not confined to a particular region. The North Sea may be saved for the moment, but the development and investment of skills and money that make this possible are proceeding at the expense of environmental survivability in various parts of the third world. The developed world, in solving its localized environmental problems, is anyway not paying its full account to those countries

The North Sea whose environments and societies are in a far more critical condition. The extravagant costs of clean-up of the North Sea cover a programme of action that would not meet a scientifically justifiable cost-benefit analysis in the narrow, "expert" notions of science. This is why the relatively confined "peer group" science of the official institutes and agencies and the more extended "vernacular" science of public concern need to forge a common framework of understanding and action. Only in this way can precious clean-up and precautionary resources be spent in the best interests of the world as a whole.

The North Sea basin

The North Sea amounts to less than 1 per cent of the world's oceans, so, in a very narrow sense, its demise would not undermine the stabilizing properties of the earth's biogeochemical cycles. But the states of the North Sea basin contain large populations of relatively wealthy people (table 8.1), so its viable future is a matter of considerable political and commercial interest. The area of the North Sea with which this report deals is south of latitude 62N, the Skagerrak, and the English Channel to 5W. Figure 8.1 displays the littoral North Sea states and some important regions.

The North Sea is an ancient sea with a long history. It is in a constant state of change, as the continental drift, tidal motion, circulatory currents, and human activity continue to modify its character.

Table 8.1 Population and GNP in the states of the North Sea basin

Country Population (mid-1990s) (million) GNP per capita(US$)
Belgium 10.0 15,540
Denmark 5.1 22,080
France 56.4 19,490
Germany 79 5a 22,320b
Netherlands 14.9 17,320
Norway 4.2 23,120
Sweden 8.6 23,660
United Kingdom 57.4 16,100

Source: World Bank (1992, 219).
a. Figure is for unified Germany.
b. Pre-unification figure for the Federal Republic of Germany.

Around 350 million years ago, the land that was to become the North Sea was situated approximately 2 degrees south of the equator, in the location of the present-day Brazilian rain forests. Deposits of mud, covering and compressing the vegetation, gradually engulfed the existing swamp. As the sediments built up, the organic matter gradually changed its form, resulting in the formation of the rich coal seams.

In the Permian era some 240 million years ago, the swamp metamorphosed into a sea, in what is regarded as the true geological birth of the North Sea when the principal basins forming the North Sea came into existence (MacGarvin 1990). The rock under the North Sea began to subside, a process still in progress. This allowed the surrounding seas to resurge, submerging all land except for mountainous and hilly regions. The land mass was still migrating northwards and by this stage was around 20 degrees north of the equator. Some 168 million years ago the land mass rose again, creating an intricate tangle of deltas. Many of the marine deposits created during this age were rich in tiny marine organisms. Compressed under the weight of sediments that began to engulf them, the hydrocarbon substances became sealed, forming the crude oil and natural gas reserves that have subsequently been lucratively exploited by the human race.

Fig. 8.1 The North Sea area

By the early Cretaceous period (around 100 million years ago) the region was about 40 degrees north and isolated except for an opening to the north. The water levels rose gradually until most of northwestern Europe lay under a chalk sea. For unknown reasons, and around the same time of the dinosaur extinction, the chalk stopped forming. The emergent land masses were recognizable as those now forming continental Europe (MacGarvin 1990).

Until the ice ages began 2 million years ago, the water levels rose and fell, joining Britain with Europe and then separating the island from the continent. The North Sea basin also continued its drift to its current position.

The succession of ice ages that followed shaped the North Sea basin into what it is today. The most recent ice age, 20,000 years ago, covered the region northwards from the Wash to Jutland with ice over 2 km thick. It was responsible for gorging deep valleys in the sea bed and channelling the rivers of northern Europe along what is now the English Channel. The ice retreated and the water flowed back in to the now familiar shape of the North Sea basin, leaving behind deposits of sand and gravel. Tidal erosion, dredging developments, reclamation, sea defences, and harbour management are continually changing and modifying the finer details of the exact shape of the North Sea.

For analytical purposes the North Sea may be conveniently divided into two parts, the southern and northern North Sea. The northern part is relatively deep, around 50-200 m, and is subject to strong oceanic influences. It has a relatively short turnover time and is surrounded by less populated and industrialized nations, and so receives less waste. Because it is larger in size, however, it receives a greater amount of atmospheric deposition. The southern North Sea is shallower, with depths varying between 20 m and 50 m. It has strong tidal currents and a short turnover time. The southern North Sea carries a large sediment load and includes many areas in which finer sediments are deposited. The water in this area has a notable oceanic component. It is noteworthy that the coasts that flank the southern North Sea are more industrialized than those in the northern sector, and therefore the southern sector receives more in the way of waste inputs (Eisma 1986).

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