The Precautionary Principle: Giving the Environment the Benefit of the Doubt

Umwelt, Energie & Verkehr

New technologies and materials lead to various unforeseen environmental consequences. The precautionary principle can be a key governance instrument to successfully deal with the challenges stemming from new technologies and materials. In order to strengthen the precautionary principle, a Scientific Advisory Commission will have to monitor and assess newly emerging environmental risks and support policy makers with scientific expertise. 

Newly Emerging Environmental Risks

Our society is innovation-driven. In fact, innovation influences every part of our life including our work, personal relationships, and the production of goods. Nevertheless, new technologies or materials can also pose severe risks to our environment:

A prime example is the wide use of nanomaterials, which define a material solely with respect to its size, namely everything between 1 and 100 nm. For instance, silver is increasingly used as nanomaterial, referred to as nanosilver. Nanosilver is toxic to bacteria. Because of its antibacterial effects, scientists use nanosilver as a compound for the coating of surgical devices. However,many scientists and NGOs are now concerned about nanomaterials’ potential detrimental impacts on animals and plants. For instance, nanomaterials can have similar effects as asbestos, leading to inflammatory reactions or even cancer. In spite of the fact that they could cause serious and irreversible environmental harm, nanomaterials – like many other new materials or technologies – are used in our daily life. Therefore, it is necessary to regulate the use of such potentially harmful novel technologies or materials.

The Precautionary Principle

When facing the regulation of newly emerging risks, the precautionary principle can be a key governance instrument to deal with new technologies or materials that could potentially harm our environment. The precautionary principle requires appropriate action when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that there is a risk of serious environmental harm; even in the presence of scientific uncertainty regarding the potential risks. By complying with the precautionary principle, society pursues a «better safe than sorry» approach.

Although the precautionary principle is implemented in international and national law, the precautionary principle alone will not do much. Because of its general wording and the lack of specific goals, it is often unclear how authorities have to implement and comply with the precautionary principle. In fact, the definition of the principle can vary significantly: For example, the Stockholm Convention On Persistent Organic Pollutants in its art. 8 para. 9 has a very broad precautionary approach whereas the Agenda 21, a comprehensive non-binding action plan coming out of the Rio 1992 Earth Summit, explicitly lists possible precautionary measures in its art. 17(21). To complicate matters further, there are major differences between regulatory authorities – especially the EU and the US – in how they implement and apply the precautionary principle.

Establishing a Scientific Advisory Commission on Emerging Environmental Risks

To protect the environment from newly emerging risks, I suggest establishing a Scientific Advisory Commission (SAC). The SAC will be a body of scientists that come from a variety of disciplines, e.g. life sciences, social sciences or law. From an institutional perspective, the SAC could be embedded in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which is ideally suited for this purpose because of its profound expertise in the field of environmental protection. Alternatively, the SAC could also be an intergovernmental body of the UN like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which – contrary to the IPCC – would not merely focus on risks associated with climate change. Instead, the SAC will monitor environmental risks that are emerging from novel technologies and materials.

By regularly taking part in public events, publishing reports and striving for media presence, the SAC will make the general public aware of the environmental risks of new technologies and materials. Thereby, the commission will pave the way for broader discussions and negotiations regarding certain policy topics. Consequently, the SAC will play a crucial role in providing comprehensive information on novel environmental risks and thus, establish a closer exchange between scientists and society as a whole.

As a strong network, the SAC will not only see and understand scientific risks and opportunities but also know how to transfer scientific findings into policy advice. To do so, the SAC will first assess different approaches to prevent identified risks. In a second step, the SAC will then present policy options and, if necessary, propose policy recommendations in accordance with scientific findings and the precautionary principle. Since the UN will be the SAC’s umbrella organization, the recommendations will be addressed either to several or to only one particularly affected UN Member State. Ultimately, the experts of the SAC will be facilitators that advance policy decisions.


The management of risks stemming from new products plays an important role in environmental protection. Keeping the pace of current technological progress in mind, the risks posed by new technologies and materials will be one of the main environmental challenges in the future. The precautionary principle could be a key governance instrument to successfully deal with the challenges stemming from new technologies and materials.

To successfully protect the environment from newly emerging risks, it is necessary to rely on scientific expertise when making environmental policy decisions. Thus, international policymakers should establish a permanent Scientific Advisory Commission that informs and advises the general public, including policymakers.

Image by ejaugsburg on Pixabay