Do We Need the Precautionary Principle?

Picture of a landfill with wind turbines in the background
Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

We have passed the tipping point for the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Sea levels are rising and threatening coastal cities. Storms are becoming increasingly severe and unpredictable. The Earth is hotter than ever before. These are some of the consequences of anthropological activities that past and current generations have engaged on, driven partially by an inclination to ownership and personal enrichment.

During the third industrial revolution, the increasingly obsessive pursuit of wealth, combined with lack of awareness of the environmental impacts of releasing production byproducts without regulation led to high levels of pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency was then created in order to pass laws to remediate the consequences of years of accumulated pollution levels and the health consequences that followed.

The Precautionary Principle is the idea that in order to avoid further contamination and degradation of the environment, we should implement policies that prevent, rather than remediate, damages to our ecosphere. Much like in medicine, the Principle bases itself on the fact that prevention is often more effective and less costly than remediation. Some agree that such a framework is beneficial, while others argue that it is doable in theory, but should not be implemented due various reasons.

Benefits

It prevents damages before they happen. This principle promotes the idea that all activities could harm the environment, and those responsible need to take actions to prevent any damages. Therefore, it prevents damage before it happens.

It provides a framework for risk assessments and regulations. Preventive environmental regulation is a conflict of interest for those who bank on loose regulations. Therefore, the PP states that lack of full scientific certainty (which might be an argument used to try to dismiss the need for preventive regulations) cannot be used to dismiss the need for cost-effective preventive measures if it might cause serious or irreversible damage.

Therefore, it reduces bias and minimizes the room for arguments based on “lack of absolute proof” even though there is a majority scientific consensus.

It can address concerns in public health and environmental issues without dictating courses of action. Since the principle is a framework, it does not dictate courses of action. Rather, it can be used as a tool to highlight the problem and make the public more aware.

It contains an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action. Analyzing the opportunity costs and the potential scenarios is important for cost benefit. While I concur that all actions should have precautionary measures, there could be a situation in which they are not necessary.

Furthermore, being able to admit that such occurrences might happen will make it easier for people opposing the PP to see that it is not a bad tool and that it should be used.

Possible Downsides

The Precautionary Principle takes into account how much protection the public wants and its values. It is argued that because there are risks in adopting such measure (cost-benefit, delay) the public should decide what is best. Misinformation and lack of education, on the other hand, could cause the public to decide on regulations that are not taking into account general welfare.

Refuted Counterarguments

It is not a principle sound for public policy. The principle is indeed sound for public policy because its definition changes to adapt to the country or people being regulated.

Economic progress is no less essential for environmental protection than for protecting public health. Economic progress is indeed necessary, but we also depend on natural resources to fuel the economy. Therefore, protection of scarce resources and prevention of their depletion is a sound decision to ensure continuous economic growth.

Economic and environmental benefits are not mutually exclusive, but rather interdependent.

It will delay the development of emerging nations. There are sustainable ways for countries to develop that are more cost-effective in the long term.

An emerging country that implements a sustainable, environmentally friendly infrastructure early on will have to spend less updating the aforementioned later.

Risks must be taken to produce new technologies, and there are risks in not producing those technologies. The Precautionary Principle does not advocate for new technologies to be barred. It only sets conditions for production of such technologies so that it does not damage the environment.

Ultimately, innovation is not suppressed by the PP, but rather incentivized. After all, increasing the efficiency of manufacturing while obtaining the same end product is not only innovative, it is an absolute advantage.

Takeaways

The Precautionary Principle stimulates innovation in sustainability as it requires new pathways for production and other human endeavors that take into consideration prevention of possible damages to the environment. With the consequences of anthropological activities and patterns becoming increasingly dire, due to a prolonged period pollution emission and degradation of natural resources and services, we need to engage in more than just remedial efforts.