A way to combine the precautionary principle and risk assessment for the evaluation of project alternatives

Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) is, in its simplest form, meeting the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future (World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), ‘Our Common Future’, also commonly known as ‘The Brundtland Report’). It requires that actions to protect the environment take account of social and economic issues, and those social and economic initiatives, in their turn, take account of the other two components.

Within Australia ESD is referred to in over 30 separate pieces of legislation and has been widely adopted as a standard by which activities should be judged. However in assessing project activities, which may (for example) include weighing up the pros and cons of project alternatives or the development of management systems, it is also necessary to conduct a risk assessment determine the most responsible way forward that balances project objectives with the need to reduce risks to as low as reasonably practicable. In this post I look at the connection between ESD and risk assessment and put forward …

Firstly let me define ESD: and I will use the definition given in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act, s.3A) wherein ESD is defined by its principles as being:

  •  decision making processes should effectively integrate both long term and short term economic, environmental, social and equitable considerations;
  • if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation [the Precautionary Principle];
  • the principle of inter generational equity—that the present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment is maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations;
  • the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity should be a fundamental consideration in decision making;
  • improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms should be promoted.

Of these five principles the precautionary principle is most relevant to risk assessment and the principle I wish to focus on here. The precautionary principle is directed towards the prevention of serious or irreversible environmental harm in situations of scientific uncertainty. Its premise is that where uncertainty or ignorance of exists concerning the nature or scope of the environmental harm decision makers should be cautious (Stein J Leatch v. Director General of National Parks and Wildlife Service, (1993) 81 LGERA 270 at 282).’

Back in the early 1990’s when ‘sustainability’ was first being introduced into the Australian lexicon the Federal government undertook an Australian-wide consultation process to, among other things, develop an approach for applying sustainability in environmental risk management. I was at the time (and still am) in favour of the practical approach suggested Young (Young., (1993), ‘Combining intergenerational equity, the precautionary principle, and the maintenance of natural capital’, paper to the Precautionary Principle Conference, University of NSW) for applying the precautionary principle in risk management, viz:

  1.  When the cost of degradation may be serious or appears irreversible and/or there is little prior experience or scientific confidence about the outcome – follow the strict precautionary principle.
  2. When the cost of degradation may be serious but reversible – maintain a large safety margin and require the use of best available technology.
  3. As confidence with the activity increases, allow a transition to arrangements that only require the use of best available technology when this does not entail excessive cost.
  4. When the threat of environmental damage or irreversible loss is neither irreversible nor perceived to be serious use conventional cost benefit analysis.

Now I turn to risk management. Risk is defined in AS /NZS 4360 as the chance of something happening that will have an impact upon objectives. Risk is normally ranked in terms of consequence and likelihood. The table below is a typical environmental risk matrix that I have drawn from recent EIS documents published on the internet. It shows overall environmental risk assessment matrix (also referred to as an event potential matrix) that compares the likelihood and consequences of key environmental aspects arising from the survey and assigns a level of risk. We can readily combine the practical approach suggested by Young with the outcomes of the risk assessment.

For risks identified as “Intolerable” (using the example risk matrix) the first of Young’s points would apply and the precautionary principle would be strictly applied.

For risks identified as “Moderate” a gradation between points 2 and three would apply.

For risks identified as “Negligible” point 4 would be applied.

Explicitly including the precautionary principle into the risk assessment process provides greater direction and focus on the best ESD outcomes because it draws the assessment back to the first principles of ESD.


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