Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Unpunished Polluter

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Unpunished Polluter

Article excerpt

When international environmental policy first became a widespread topic of discussion in the early 1970s, some people suggested holding industry and states liable for damage caused by marine pollution. Later, France's first Environment Minister, Brice Lalonde, grabbed headlines by declaring "the polluters will pay", and state involvement in environmental issues was perceived as an encouraging sign. Yet, 25 years later, little progress has been made.

When people hear the words "marine pollution", they usually think of accidental fossil fuel spills. But most oil slicks are caused by intentional discharges from ships at sea, which would rather risk being caught in the act and fined than pay a special fee to use waste reception facilities in harbour. Experience shows that this fee, which covers the cost of waste storage, treatment and disposal, has a perverse effect by creating an incentive for tankers to empty their holds at sea to avoid paying it. If it were automatically included in the overall harbour fee, the financial incentive to dump at sea would disappear and marine pollution would be reduced. This theory was proven when a pilot project implemented between 1988 and 1991 by German Lander with seacoasts led to a significant decline in the number of oil-coated birds, demonstrating the measure's effectiveness.

Without indulging in conspiracy theories, environmentalists question the ties between the so-called dirty industries and governments, including intergovernmental organizations. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency that regulates shipping, is a case in point. The dues of IMO member States are determined by the tonnage of their fleets, which gives countries with the most super-tankers an obvious advantage. As a result, some IMO delegations include members of the oil industry who "represent" the countries that lend their flags at sea.

IMO says that the fund set up in 1971 to compensate damage from oil spills has already distributed some $267 million - a pittance considering that in Germany cleaning up an oil-fouled beach costs between $2,800 and $5,500 per tonne of sludge. What's more, the fund does not cover damage caused by routine discharges at sea.

IMO policy towards the offshore industry has also been criticized. The suggestion in 1996 that operational discharges of wastes from offshore installations should be regulated like operational discharge from ships had the oil industry up in arms. …

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