The UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union seemed to demonstrate a widespread dissatisfaction with established approaches, including “harmonisation” – the adoption of the same standards by all Member States.
In the vote, discontent over perceived loss of national sovereignty outweighed the fear of economic damage from Brexit.
A surprisingly similar debate is taking place within the subject of “risk criteria” – the standards used to evaluate the significance of risks. ‘Really?’ I thought when I saw the European Commission’s invitation to tender for a study of harmonised risk criteria. ‘Why? How?’
While carrying out the work, I saw how the economic argument for harmonisation was opposed by each country’s wish to follow its own independent approach. It is a contest of ideas that parallels the national political debate.
Non-harmonised risk criteria
One of the long-established quirks of the subject of risk criteria is that different countries use different criteria. For example, criteria in the Netherlands appear much stricter than those in the UK 1, despite there being no corresponding difference in the actual risks imposed by industrial facilities on the local population. Perhaps this reflects different national attitudes to risks, or the relations between industry and governments, or even the working of different legal systems. Certainly, it has proved resistant to the attempts of risk analysts to argue that logically the same criteria should apply everywhere.
The need for harmonisation
So why does the European Commission want to harmonise? My understanding is that the motivation is greater efficiency in international trade, specifically the movement of dangerous goods by road, rail and inland waterway. The problem is that different risk criteria result in different restrictions, and those restrictions interfere with dangerous goods movements in a way that is arbitrary, with no consistent effect on safety. Ultimately, it costs us all money and we have little idea what level of safety is produced. The precise cost of this lack of harmonisation has never been quantified, but since transport supplies raw materials and distributes products for the chemicals industry, which contributes €551 billion to the EU economy 2, even a small loss of efficiency could be expensive.
In an ideal world, there would be a consistent, transparent process for safety-based restrictions in dangerous goods transport, giving the same level of protection to all EU citizens. Part of that Holy Grail would be harmonised risk criteria. The potential for harmonisation Whether this could be achieved in practice was the question the Commission wanted a consultant to study. The report on our feasibility study has now been published 3. In writing the report, we thought systematically about how it might work.
We reviewed the approaches to risk criteria that are currently in use in different Member States and in other regions and industries, and extracted those that seemed advantageous in some way. We then evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of each. Finding that no single approach had overwhelming advantages, we looked at whether the best ones could be combined into a system that might realistically be implemented. Finally, we considered what changes to legislation and other practices would be needed to bring this about.
At the end of the study, we concluded that this approach made harmonised risk criteria feasible, provided they were seen as guidelines rather than rigid rules. This would allow Member States flexibility to respond to their unique regulatory context, within a transparent common framework.
Sceptics might complain that this is harmonisation of terminology only, while allowing differences to persist in practice. It would therefore not deliver the intended benefits of harmonisation, and would impose additional cost as risk analysts attempted to show how their studies aligned with the harmonised criteria.
But enthusiasts might reply that harmonisation is a process rather than an outcome. As we strive to improve in all aspects of our work, we might reasonably strive to harmonise with our neighbours where we can. By trying to harmonise, we might learn why we differ. By exploring a common approach to risk criteria, we might find that some approaches are more efficient than others, or easier to explain, or more suitable to the problems at hand.
Harmonised risk criteria would be only one step towards harmonised risk assessment of the transport of dangerous goods. Now that we believe they might be feasible, it is appropriate to consider some of the other steps we would need: data collection, assessment methodology, example studies.
Harmonisation, it seems, is an endlessly expanding process, and the advantages and disadvantages can only be compared subjectively. I hope that, like the EU itself, transport risk assessment will continue to evolve towards something that is neither complete uniformity nor total independence.
- Ale, B.J.M., “Tolerable or Acceptable: A Comparison of Risk Regulation in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands”, Risk Analysis, vol 25, no 2, 2005.
- “Facts and Figures 2016”, The European Chemical Industry Council.
- “Harmonised Risk Acceptance Criteria for Transport of Dangerous Goods”, DNV Report for European Commission DG-MOVE, March 2014.