What is Precautionary Principle?

April 15, 2024

According to British environmentalist Norman Myers, the precautionary principle is becoming an established principle for policymakers tackling environmental problems.

About Precautionary Principle:

  • It is an approach to policymaking that legitimizes the adoption of preventative measures to address potential risks to the public or environment associated with certain activities or policies.
  • The principle says, “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 such environmental degradation.”
  • It 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 implies that protective action should be taken to prevent any possible harm, even if there is a chance that such harm will not occur–thus playing it safe. 
  • It first emerged during the 1970s and has since been enshrined in a number of international treaties on the environment, including the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the national legislation of certain Member States. 
    • In 1987, it was incorporated into international law at the International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea.
  • Since then, it has permeated most international environmental conventions. For example, entrenched by the 1992 Rio Declaration (Principle 15), it was written into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and, retroactively, into the Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
  • It was integrated into the criteria for the listing of endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1994 and the following year it was adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
  • It is a cornerstone of European Union (EU) environmental law and has been central in determining the EU’s position toward genetically modified organisms.