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The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is a guiding framework for decision-making that anticipates how our actions will affect the environment and health of future generations. The precautionary principle and its application to environmental hazards and their uncertainties began to emerge as a clear and coherent concept within ecological science in the 1970s, when German scientists and policy-makers were trying to deal with ‘forest death’ (Waldsterben) and its possible causes, including air pollution. The principles of The Precautionary prevention often used in medicine and public health, where the benefit of the doubt about a diagnosis given to the patient (‘better safer than sorry’).

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development agreed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development1992. It states that: Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not use as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

The report “The Precautionary Principle” (UNESCO COMEST) define The Precautionary Principle

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm. Morally unacceptable harm refers to harm to humans or the environment that is:

  • Threatening to human life
  • Health seriously and effectively irreversible
  • Inequitable to present or future generations
  • Imposed without adequate consideration of the human rights of those affected

The judgement of plausibility should be grounded in scientific analysis. Analysis should be ongoing so that chosen actions are subject to review. Uncertainty may apply to, but need not be limited to, causality or the bounds of the possible harm. Actions are interventions undertaken before harm occurs that seek to avoid or diminish the harm. Actions proportional to the seriousness of the potential harm. A consideration of their positive and negative consequences and assessment of the moral implications of both action and inaction. The choice of action should be the result of a participatory process.

  • UNESCO COMEST ( World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology) reports The Precautionary Principle. Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000
  • The precautionary principle: protecting public health, the environment and the future of our children Edited by Marco Martuzzi and Joel A. Tickner
  • The Precautionary Principle World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST)


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