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Principles > Precaution

Most of us would accept that it is wise to prevent potential adversity, even if we are not yet sure how serious (or benign) such adversity may turn out to be. This is the essence of the Precautionary Principle, and defines much of the way we are beginning to respond to the challenges of sustainable development, particularly within the environmental context.

The Precautionary Principle urges a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof of evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay could prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations. Central to the application of the Precautionary Principle is the concept of proportionality or cost-effectiveness. Will environmental benefits of precautionary action outweigh the economic and societal costs? Policies to reduce the threat of future climate change, for example, may need to include radical shifts in travel and energy-use behaviour, shifts which to many will appear rather unpalatable. The best precautionary action will be that which follows a "no regrets" policy, where the action will have other benefits, regardless of whether or not it helps to reduce the environmental threat in question. In the case of climate change, reducing energy consumption will lower our fuel bills, whilst walking or riding a bike instead of taking the car for a short journey can improve our health and air quality.

The Precautionary Principle was incorporated into the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, stating that, "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." According to the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, formulated by an international group of scientists, government officials, lawyers, and environmental activists in January 1998 at Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin, USA, the principle of precautionary action has 4 parts:

  • People have a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm.
  • The burden of proof of harmlessness of a new technology, process, activity, or chemical lies with the proponents, not with the general public.
  • Before using a new technology, process, or chemical, or starting a new activity, people have an obligation to examine "a full range of alternatives" including the alternative of doing nothing.
  • Decisions applying the precautionary principle must be "open, informed, and democratic" and "must include affected parties."