Environmental risk policies

Environmental policies developed in the latter half of the 20th century approached the issue of risk in the light of major industrial and ecological accidents. In France, it was the notion of “major risk” that formed the basis of public management policy; the concept of “environmental risk” was added later. It now forms the focus of the Institute’s work.

Environmental issues emerged gradually during the 19th century, then began to accelerate in the mid-20th century. During the 1960s, a cultural movement boomed within industrialized countries, pushing environmental concerns to the forefront. This brought environmental issues into the field of public policy.

The first demonstration of change in public action was over two main issues: the conservation of nature and its protection from human exploitation, and the fight against pollution produced by human activity; especially industrial activity (air and water pollution, noise or odour, accidents such as fires or explosions, etc.). The notion of the environment is used here in the broader sense and is not centred on natural conservation; it also encompasses the health and well-being of populations and the integrity of material goods.

The management of environmental risks cannot be separated from the industrial catastrophes that marked the 1970s and 1990s. For example, an aerial release of a toxic substance (dioxin cloud) by a chemical site in Seveso, Italy spurred the European Union to adopt a regulation in 1982 on controlling risks related to major accidents (the Seveso Directive).

Managing “major risks”

The Ministry of the Environment was created in France in 1971 to oversee this new area of public action: its risk management policy in the ‘70s and ‘80s was initially based on the notion of “major technological risk” (from the works of sociologist P. Lagadec), a term which evolved to “major risk” in the 1990s. The notion of “risk to the environment” was formulated at the same time, then formalized and broadened into the concept of “environmental risk” by the early 2000s.

A major risk is defined as “the possibility of an event  of natural or anthropogenic origin, which may affect a large number of people, cause significant damage, and exceed the reaction capabilities of society.”
This type of risk is characterized by low frequency (or probability) and high gravity (numerous victims, significant damages to property and natural environments).

This line of thinking, which is behind France’s major risk management policy is principally centred on the potential control of risk, preventing industrial disasters from happening and limiting their consequences.
The Ministry of the Environment major risk management policy has a dual purpose: one of prevention and one of intervention in crisis management. Risk management policy relies on seven principles of prevention.

Natural risks and major technological risks

The French approach to managing major risks, developed by the Ministry of the Environment, involves two major types of risk:

> Major natural risk is a threat stemming from geological (earthquakes, volcanoes) or atmospheric phenomena (cyclones, storms) that may cause significant damage to humans, goods or the environment.
•    floods
•    earthquakes
•    volcanic eruptions
•    ground movement (coastal erosion, sinkholes, mudslides, rockslides, etc.)
•    avalanches
•    forest fires
•    storms and cyclones (for French Overseas Territories)

> Major technological risk caused by human activity, is the threat of a wide-scale event related to the manipulation, storage, or transport of dangerous substances which may have serious consequences, whether immediate or delayed, to humans and the environment.
•    nuclear risk
•    industrial risk (mainly caused by use of chemical substances)
•    risk of transporting dangerous materials
•    risk of dam failure

“Environmental risk”: ecological and health impacts

Public policies on environmental risk follow a different rationale than that underlying the concept of major risk. Management of major risk is structured on the risk’s source - the dangerous event that may occur.
The concept of environmental risk is based on an approach based on potential impact, along with a particular emphasis on repairs, which had previously been all but absent from management approaches. Current public risk management doctrine seeks to “assess, reduce and offset” impact on the environment. Published in 2012, the purpose of this policy is to build environmental concerns into regional economic development plans, programs and projects.

Environmental risk includes two separate types of risks:

  •     environmental risk in the strict sense of the “ecosystem,” which can cause harm to nature (flora and fauna) and biodiversity due to the presence of dangerous substances in the air, water or soil;
  •     risk to the health of human populations potentially exposed to the presence of pollutants in their daily surroundings. This category of health risk is designated by the term "environmental health"

Today, the term “environmental risks” tends to mean all risks of damage to the environment, combining and aligning major risks with health and ecological risks.