L’option zéro émission

Plaider pour zéro émission n'est pas une nouvelle proposition du monde environnemental; les environnementalistes se sont objectés à l'utilisation de produits chimiques particuliers depuis les années 60.

Il n'existe pas actuellement de réponses ou de solutions aux effets des produites chimiques et, bien que zéro émission soit la politique la plus sage et la plus prudente, il ne fait pas de doute que c'est une proposition très complexe avec d'importantes conséquences et avec des répercussions économiques.

Toutefois, il se peut que nous ayons atteint le temps pour des actions radicales parce que nous avons atteint les limites : les limites de nos capacités scientifiques et les limites de notre tolérance au danger et à la dégradation.


The Zero-Discharge Option

Ann Kuersten
Tantramar Environmental Alliance
October 2003

In the past half century, we have been confronted over and over again with complex environmental and human health problems caused by chemicals, beginning with carcinogens, CFCs, POPs, green-house gases and now EDSs. Many argue that it is time to acknowledge that not only are the effects of the thousands of chemicals we have released upon the planet out of our control, but the ability to assess the damage is equally beyond our capabilities.

Perhaps it is time to change course-rather than use enormous resources studying and mitigating damages (end-of-pipe), we could prevent problems at source by preventing the release of a substance into the environment in the first place. Instead of a chemical-by-chemical approach, it may well be more efficient in the long run to use a systems approach to chemical regulation in general, i.e. blanket regulation, which could eventually take the form of a global zero-discharge policy for emissions of certain or all chemicals, starting with bio-accumulative, persistent and endocrine disrupting substances.

Advocating for zero-discharge is not a new position in the environmental field, environmentalists have been protesting the use of select chemicals since the 1960s, inspired by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962. Many continue to argue that "we have already reached our capacity for environmental insults" (Raffensperger and Tickner, 1999, p.8), and that we should not permit synthetic substances to be discharged into the environment, thus eliminating any possibility of future harm.

Such a so-called zero-emissions policy has already been implemented in international environmental legislation in at least three instances, interestingly all addressing the pollution of bodies of water. In 1978, the International Joint Commission (IJC) of the US and Canada co-signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which stated that "the discharge of any or all persistent toxic substances be virtually eliminated" (as quoted in EEA, 2001, p.128).

Another example protects the North Sea, calling for continuous reduction and cessation within one generation of releases into the North Sea of persistent, toxic and/or bioaccumulative chemicals (North Sea Ministers Conference, 1995, on-line).

A third example of this radical environmental policy position is the 1998 OSPAR Strategy with Regard to Hazardous Substances. In this document, the Environment Ministers of the member counties of the OSPAR Commission for the protection of the Marine Environment in the North East Atlantic agreed to "prevent pollution of the maritime area by continuously reducing discharges, emissions and losses of hazardous substances with the ultimate aim of achieving concentrations in the environment close to zero for man-made synthetic substances" (OSPAR Strategy with regard to Hazardous Substances,, 1.1). They go on to say that they shall make every endeavor to "move towards the target of cessation of discharges, emissions or losses of hazardous substances by the year 2020" (OSPAR Strategy with regard to Hazardous Substances,, 4.1).

These are not the only voices calling for a zero-tolerance to environmental harm: the WWF has launched its Global Toxics Initiative in which it calls for an end to "threats to biological diversity from toxic industrial chemicals and pesticides-especially endocrine disrupting, bioaccumulative, or persistent chemicals-within one generation-by no later than 2020" (WWF, 2001a, on-line). The WWF position is that "given the immense stakes, precaution dictates swift and strong action to eliminate the use and production of harmful chemicals" (WWF 2001b, on-line).

There are no easy answers or solutions to current chemical impacts, and while zero-emissions may be the wisest and most cautious policy, it is without doubt a very complex proposal with tremendous consequences and economic repercussions. However, it may be that we have reached the time for this radical action because we have reached limits: limits of our scientific capabilities and limits of tolerance for harm and degradation.