The discovery of new chemicals has always supported new functionalities and rising standards of living. But when it comes to applying those discoveries to industry — including resource extraction, chemical processing, biotechnology transformation and efficient product applications — public scrutiny is greater than it has ever been. The future success of the chemical industry will depend more on social license to operate than technological advancement.
Take, for example, the potential endocrine- disrupting effects of phthalates which are under intensive public discussions and health research investigations. The “precautionary principle” has driven health authorities around the world to impose increasingly restrictive human exposures to phthalates.
There have also been high-profile protests around the White House in Washington, D.C. against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, and in British Columbia on the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline. Both projects are designed to carry bitumen extracted from the oil sands in Alberta to global markets. Despite the limited potential for greenhouse gas emissions in the extraction of bitumen from the oil sands in Alberta, it has become the rallying cry for fundraising in the environmental industry.
By the same token, even in the absence of credible, documented, scientific evidence of any deleterious impact of genetically modified organisms on human health, there is wide-spread fear among the public and government authorities of the presence of any GMO in food products. Sixty years after the global adoption of canola, a genetically modified rapeseed first developed in Canada, no detrimental effect on human health has been demonstrated. But this has not featured prominently in public discourse on the subject.
In the past half century, the environmental movement has brought enormous benefit to society and has helped to raise the standard of social responsibility of chemical industries. At the same time, the very success of the environmental movement has bred a diverse and increasingly politicized industry.
This is partly because despite the inherent uncertainties of science, the general public’s faith in it has been exploited by some environmental movements to deliver an overly zealous forecast for the future and generate — often unsubstantiated — fear.
Especially in a time when society’s scrutiny of scientific research is particularly acute, it is critical that scientific progress remain non-political and relentless. The terms “the science is settled” and “scientific consensus” are expressions of political convictions. The history of science has demonstrated that evidence is the only reliable criterion to measure scientific progress. Political expediency and ambition must not be allowed to taint the integrity of science.
Responsible Care,® initiated by the chemical industry in Canada in 1985 and adopted in over 50 countries around the world since, is a shining example of the chemical industry’s voluntary commitment to managing the complete life cycle of chemicals for minimal adverse impacts on the environment and society.
Still, industry standards are not sufficient to gain the public’s trust. Community-endorsed global standards — in which “community” includes industry, civil society, consumers and regulators — must become the norm. This kind of “Community Care” will help generate broad social acceptance for the chemical industry to maintain sustainable growth. A consistently successful communityof- interest standards development framework has been established and tested by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA Group) of Canada over several decades. It may offer such a “Community Care” platform for the chemical industry to get ahead of the curve.
David Fung is CEO of the ACDEG Group and Vice Chair of the CIC’s Board of Directors.