Precaution and the precautionary principle: two Australian case studies

Precautionary principle Environmental impacts Fisheries Sector regulation Genetic modification Australia

Private activities and government regulatory actions or inaction can have impacts on the environment and on human health. Scientific uncertainty about such impacts compounds the problems that confront policymakers. In environmental and natural resource management areas subject to scientific uncertainty, policy development can be enhanced by clarifying precautionary decision making processes, and the role of the Precautionary Principle itself.

There is widespread confusion about the meaning and influence of the many versions of the Precautionary Principle. The most widely adopted versions, based on the United Nations’ ‘Rio definition’, seek to ensure that uncertainty about potentially serious hazards does not justify ignoring them. More prescriptive versions can mandate precautionary action without recourse to an assessment of the costs and benefits. Importantly, precautionary measures can be adopted without reference to the Precautionary Principle where, for instance, legislative objectives relating to ecological sustainability and human health apply.

The versions of the Principle adopted in Australia, which reflect the ‘Rio definition’, permit precautionary measures but do not specify the nature or the extent of precaution to be applied. Decision makers therefore apply precaution through risk management frameworks that take account of uncertainty. Efficient and effective implementation of precaution requires decision makers to take account of the full range of relevant factors, including the magnitude, nature and severity of potential harm, as well as the economic, social, environmental, and health costs and benefits.

Two case studies – fisheries management and licensing of releases of genetically modified organisms – illustrate how precaution has been applied in Australia. The different risk management frameworks adopted reflect variations in legislative objectives, knowledge bases, and types of hazards. Confusion about the role of the Precautionary Principle may have contributed to public and industry dissatisfaction with some precautionary decisions. Decision makers are improving the transparency and accountability of their processes.

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