The precautionary principle: Definitions, applications and governance

In-Depth Analysis 09-12-2015

The precautionary principle enables decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high. It first emerged during the 1970s and has since been enshrined in a number of international treaties on the environment, in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the national legislation of certain Member States. The precautionary principle divides opinions. To some, it is unscientific and an obstacle to progress. To others, it is an approach that protects human health and the environment. Different stakeholders, experts and jurisdictions apply different definitions of the principle, mainly depending on the degree of scientific uncertainty required for the authorities to take action. Although most experts agree that the precautionary principle does not call for specific measures (such as a ban or reversal of the burden of proof), opinions are divided on the method for determining when to apply precautionary measures. The application of the precautionary principle presents many opportunities as well as challenges. The precautionary principle is closely linked to governance. This has three aspects: risk governance (risk assessment, management and communication), science-policy interfaces and the link between precaution and innovation.