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Debate: Environment

The 1992 Rio Declaration defined the 'precautionary principle' - to prevent scientific and technological development from advancing at the expense of the environment and public health.

But now it is enshrined in UK, European and international environmental policy and law. This week we ask: Does application of the precautionary principle risk stifling innovation and long-term benefit from infrastructure development?


Geraint Day, business research executive, Institute of Directors Modern business relies on scientific and technological innovation. People can benefit from such advances. However, the possibility of risk may result in calls for caution such as the recent suggested dangers posed by microwave antennas, mobile phones and new materials.

Application of the precautionary principle arises in particular on environmental matters, including climate change and its effects. The principle was enshrined in the European Maastricht Treaty and may have led to several new laws and regulations.

A risk averse culture exists. It sometimes degenerates into fear of the 'unknown'.

Health and environmental scare stories abound, many based on the flimsiest of evidence or none at all. The mere assertion that some development could be harmful can mean calls for delay or cancellation.

Civil engineers know the hazards of pursuing certain road or airport construction projects against opposition from those who adhere to a view that they bring only harm, not good.

Any idea that things can never have a down side is unrealistic.

Time travel has not been invented. There is no way to show unequivocally, for all time and under all circumstances, that something is 100% safe.

Yet the most strident advocates of the 'precautionary principle' appear to cling religiously to the notion that absence of evidence of harm must be taken as proof of need for action to halt proceedings - now.

We must support high standards of health and safety, to ensure that products and services do not pose undue threats to people or the natural environment. However, over zealous application of the precautionary principle could lead to delayed or stifled innovation.

Governments and society have always had to weigh up the likely costs and benefits when considering whether to proceed with new projects.

There could be occasions when, by not introducing novel products and processes, net harm - or foregone benefits - will result.


Sara Parkin, programme director, Forum for the Future Used properly, the precautionary principle should stimulate innovation to deliver what society wants - a safe and healthy environment for all. That's because calculating risk and probabilities that include environmental and social dimensions as well as economic and technical ones is as much an art as a science.

It is a profound mistake therefore to view ethics and values as 'soft, subjective and personal' while science is 'hard, objective and factual. Issue of right and wrong, or good and bad are not like preferences for thin or thick cut marmalade. Reasons underpin ethic and value choices, and reasons can be analysed, held to account and subject to rational debate.

In assessing risk, the process matters as much as the outcome as both must be acceptable to those likely to be affected. Innovation is as much about doing things differently and better as it is about novelty.

From road by-passes to big dams, to genetically modified organisms, the need for an ethical and value driven decision process from the outset of the project is essential. The rules of the Institution of Civil Engineers, for example, say 'a member shall have full regard for the public interest, particularly in relation to the environment . . .

and shall discharge duties to the employer or the client both impartially and with complete fidelity'.

Key elements of the precautionary approach are in fact entirely consistent with sound scientific practice and can help resolve problems in risk assessment such as 'ignorance' (we don't know what we don't know), 'incommensurability' (we have to compare apples and pears), and studies yielding results that differ by several orders of magnitude.

When it comes to risk and sustainable development, there is an unhelpful polarisation developing between the 'scientific' versus the 'precautionary' approaches.

In reality, both approaches need to work in tandem to get a satisfactory outcome.

The facts

The 1992 Rio Declaration on environment and development stated 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'.

Environmental policy in the US and Europe for the past 70 years has been guided by the 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' principle.

The precautionary principle, as set out by the 1992 Rio Declaration does not specify what triggers action, nor does it specify what action should be taken. It has therefore been vulnerable to a range of interpretations.


Forum for the Future website at:

Institute of Directors' website is at

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