Environmental Ethics

Precautionary principle

The precautionary principle is the political translation of increasing scientific uncertainty with regard to humanity’s effect on the environment. The precautionary principle was officially articulated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development defines the precautionary principle as:

"in order to protect the environment the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage a lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing {C}cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation"

This definition of the precautionary principle is important for two primary reasons.  Firstly, it explains the idea that scientific uncertainty should not preclude preventative measures to protect the environment.  It is being increasingly recognized that uncertainty is an intimate element of the scientific process.  This is particularly visible in large scale environmental phenomena such as global warming where direct cause and effect relationships are ambiguous and complex.  Secondly, the use of cost effective measures indicates that costs can be considered.  This is not synonymous to the no regrets approach which ignores the cost of preventative action. The principle is now extensively applied to a number of environmental areas.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has stated that uncertainty should be no excuse to avoid taking action.  The convention suggests that precautionary measures should be taken in order to anticipate, prevent, and minimize the causes of climate change and, that a lack of scientific certainty should not be an excuse to take such measures.  Ortwin Renn illustrates the central role that the precautionary principle played in the development of the European Unions Approach to Chemical regulation, Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH). The effectiveness of the use of the precautionary principle in light of uncertainty is often debated.  For example, it has been argued that the use of the precautionary principle with a logic that it is better to be safe than sorry could be seen as an excuse to prevent any activity that may be perceived as having a negative side effect, the consequence of which would be to inhibit innovation and technological advancement.  It has also been argued that uncertainty can be used by powerful interest groups for their own ends.  On the other hand, uncertainty as represented in the precautionary principle does not suggest that there should be a ban of all activities that cannot be quantified or the outcomes absolutely predicted.  Instead, what is argued is that there is a measured phasing out of risky and uncertain activities until more information and experience is available.  Extending this debate there are distinctions between strong and weak forms of the precautionary principle.

Strong precaution

Strong precaution suggests that regulation is required whenever there is a possible risk to health safety or the environment, even if the supporting evidence is speculative and even if the economic costs of regulation are high.  A strong form of the precautionary principle for example, would call for measures to lessen the risk of environmental harm induced by climate change by incorporating a focus on reducing or preventing the emission of greenhouse gases.  Strong versions justify or require precautionary measures and some also establish liability for environmental harm, which is effectively a strong form of “polluter pays”. For example, the Earth Charter states: “When knowledge is limited apply a precautionary approach …. Place the burden of proof on those who argue that a proposed activity will not cause significant harm, and make the responsible parties liable for environmental harm.” Reversal of proof requires those proposing an activity to prove that the product, process or technology is sufficiently “safe” before approval is granted. Requiring proof of “no environmental harm” before any action proceeds implies the public is not prepared to accept any environmental risk, no matter what economic or social benefits may arise. At the extreme, such a requirement could involve bans and prohibitions on entire classes of potentially threatening activities or substances. Over time, there has been a gradual transformation of the precautionary principle from what appears in the Rio Declaration to a stronger form that arguably acts as restraint on development in the absence of firm evidence that it will do no harm.

Weak precaution

Weak precaution indicates that lack of scientific evidence does not preclude action if damage would otherwise be serious and irreversible.  The weak version of the precautionary principle is seen as the least restrictive and allows preventative measures to be taken in the face of uncertainty, but does not necessarily require them.  Examples of this can be witnessed in the Rio Declaration and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  In order to satisfy the threshold of harm , there must be some evidence relating to both the likelihood of occurrence and the severity of consequences.  Weak formulations to not preclude weighing benefits against the costs.  Factors other than scientific certainty, including economic considerations, May provide legitimate grounds for postponing action.  Under weak formulations the requirement to justify the need for action generally falls on those advocating precautionary action 

Principle versus approach

No introduction to the precautionary principle would be complete without brief reference to the difference between the precautionary principle and the precautionary approach. Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration 1992 states that:

“in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be not used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

As Garcia pointed out, “the wording, largely similar to that of the principle, is subtly different in that: (1) it recognizes that there may be differences in local capabilities to apply the approach, and (2) it calls for cost-effectiveness in applying the approach, e.g., taking economic and social costs into account.” The approach is generally considered a softening of the principle." As Recuerda has noted, the distinction between the precautionary principle and a precautionary approach is diffuse and, in some contexts, controversial. In the negotiations of international declarations, the United States has opposed the use of the term ′principle` because this term has special connotations in legal language, due to the fact that a principle of law is a source of law. This means that it is compulsory, so a court can quash or confirm a decision through the application of the precautionary principle. In this sense, the precautionary principle is not a simple idea or a desideratum but a source of law. This is the legal status of the precautionary principle in the European Union. On the other hand, an ′approach` usually does not have the same meaning, although in some particular cases an approach could be binding. A precautionary approach is a particular ′lens` used to identify risk that every prudent person possesses.

Other Principles that have taken precedence in environmental policy and law are: The Polluter Pays Principle, The Principle of Non-Discrimination, The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities, The Principal of Intergenerational  Equity.



Borne, G. (2011). Precautionary principle. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbeea97896bb431f6996f8


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