Headline: Precautionary Approach

The debate on how to evaluate and manage risks focuses on three major strategies: (Renn O. EMBO Rep 8:303–305, 2007, Renn O. Risk governance. Coping with uncertainty in a complex world. Earthscan, London, 2008a; Stirling A. On ‘Science’ and ‘Precaution’ in the management of technological risk. Volume I: synthesis study, report to the eu forward studies unit by European Science and Technology Observatory (ESTO), EUR19056EN. IPTS, Sevilla. Available at: ftp://ftp.jrc.es/pub/EURdoc/eur19056IIen.pdf, 1999): (1) risk-based approaches, including, numerical thresholds (NOEL standards, performance standards, etc.); (2) reduction activities derived from the application of the precautionary principle (examples are ALARA, i.e., as low as reasonably achievable, BACT, i.e., best available control technology, containment in time and space, or constant monitoring of potential side-effects); and (3) standards derived from discursive processes such as roundtables, deliberative rulemaking, mediation or citizen panels. Experience demonstrates that there is no simple recipe for assessing, evaluating and managing risks. In view of complex cause-effect relationships, diverse attitudes and preferences as well as variations in interests and values, risks must be considered as physically as well as socially heterogeneous phenomena that preclude standardized evaluation and handling. Therefore, a coherent concept for evaluation and management is needed that ensures the integration of social diversity and multidisciplinary approaches into institutional routines and standardized practices. The main objective of this paper is to explore the potentials and the limitations of an approach to risk assessment and management that has been labelled the “precautionary principle”. In its most simple version, precaution requires risk managers to err on the safe side. This includes rather accepting false negative (that risks are less severe than assumed) than false positive assessments (that risk are more severe than assumed). However, such a simple definition does not specify to what degree false negatives are socially tolerable, nor does it allow a discussion about future benefits that could potentially compensate for uncertain risks. The following sections will review main positions on precaution and point out the present practice in the European Union, which has adopted the precautionary principle as a major legal guideline for its risk management practice. The paper concludes with suggestions for aligning the precautionary principle and the concept of responsible innovation.

Publication Year
Publication Type
Monographs and Edited Volumes

Renn, O., & Schweizer, P.-J. (2023). Precautionary Approach. In N. Wallenhorst, & C. Wulf (Eds.), Handbook of the Anthropocene: Humans between Heritage and Future (pp. 1629-1638). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Staff involved
Projects involved
Systemic Risks