The Treasury of New Zealand  [Printer-friendly version]
July 28, 2006


Policy Perspectives Paper 06/06

[Rachel's introduction: In New Zealand, the Treasury has issued a
report arguing that the precautionary principle needs to be
implemented carefully, to get the most benefits while minimizing
economic disruptions.]

By Linda Cameron


This paper, published by the Treasury of New Zealand, assesses
whether a more generic and consistent approach is required to
environmental risk management in New Zealand.

The precautionary principle has been developed as a means of avoiding
danger to human health and the environment in situations where there
is a high degree of uncertainty and the effects of policy decisions
are possibly irreversible. The definition most widely quoted is from
the 1992 Rio Declaration, which states that: "where there are threats
of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific evidence
shall not be used as reason for postponing cost-effective measures to
prevent environmental degradation".

There has been rapid growth in the adoption of the precautionary
principle in international agreements and the laws of many countries,
including New Zealand (for matters such as hazardous substances and
new organisms, biosecurity and fisheries). However, it remains highly
controversial. Variations in how the precautionary principle is
interpreted and applied can create problems, including the potential
for significant costs to society through stifling economic development
and technological innovation. The principle offers little guidance for
regulatory policy.

The precautionary principle needs to be considered in the context of a
more generic risk management framework, with clear guidelines that
provide a systematic approach to setting the best course of action
under uncertainty. Such an approach could assist in determining when
and how the principle should be applied to manage risk and uncertainty
while minimising potential economic costs. A key benefit is that it
could support activities that foster development and innovation (that
may not proceed otherwise), through focusing on alternative ways of
implementing the precautionary principle, while still aiming to
minimise or mitigate risks. This could enable the greatest returns to
be achieved with acceptable results, costs and risks.

Currently in New Zealand, the precautionary principle is not being
applied in the context of an integrated risk management framework
(unlike in the European Union, the United States and Canada). There is
also a lack of guidelines on implementation. Clear guidelines could
help ensure a more consistent and subtle approach that explores a
wider range of options.

Draft guidelines developed in Canada could be relevant to New
Zealand and would be the most applicable from an operational
perspective. Key benefits include: a more participatory approach and
increased consistency with international commitments and across
domestic legislation and regulatory regimes. Possible limitations
include the potential cost of participatory processes and successful
implementation being highly dependent on support from government
agencies. Implementation issues would require further exploration.

This working paper is available to view or download in Adobe PDF
format: tpp06-06.pdf (157 KB)

Copyright Crown Copyright. The Treasury, 1 The Terrace, PO Box
3724, Wellington, NEW ZEALAND.

Tel: +64 4 472 2733. Fax: +64 4 473 0982. Email: Treasury Webmaster.