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The purpose of this School is to explore challenges and possible ways forward for the effective and appropriate application of the precautionary principle in sustainability governance. It will bring together a solid and diverse group of scholars and practitioners with expertise on the precautionary principle, risk assessment and management, environment and health research, science and technology studies, the governance of innovation, environmental governance, and long term transitions to sustainability.
The course is designed as a strategic knowledge and experience sharing course at the intersection between a research-oriented course and a professional development course, dedicated to collaborative exploration and learning. It will provide intensive research training, but also allow for policy discussions in a variety of sector and contexts and, through a knowledge co-creation approach, help to identify and find solutions to course-related issues in the participants’ research or policy application fields.
The precautionary principle is a key principle of environmental governance. It features prominently in many international environmental policy processes, texts and treaties and in national strategies and laws of many countries.
It is one of the four environment principles in the Treaty of the European Union, in which article 191,§2 states that Union policy on the environment "shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay." Together these 4 principles –precaution, prevention, polluter-pays and rectification of damage at source– are central to managing risk to the environment, human health and well-being. The most problematic of these principles is without doubt the precautionary principle.
The precautionary principle poses challenges to both environmental science and environmental governance because it applies to 'situations of scientific complexity, uncertainty and ignorance, where there may be a need to act in order to avoid, or reduce, potentially serious or irreversible threats to health and/or the environment, using an appropriate strength of scientific evidence, and taking into account the pros and cons of action and inaction and their distribution' (see the working definition of the precautionary principle proposed by the European Environment Agency – EEA 2013, p. 681). As a tool to manage risks, uncertainties and ignorance in complex social ecological systems, it is a core element of governance for a transition towards sustainability.
The principle is subject to a variety of interpretations, at the heart of major controversies and the target of serious attacks, sometimes because of misinterpretations, sometimes because of the vested interests it may be thought to disturb.
As shown by the seminal work of the European Environment Agency in the two 'Late Lessons from Early Warnings' reports (EEA 2001, 2013) there are still many open and pressing questions around the precautionary principle and its application, ways of doing research, science-policy-society interfaces, the governance of innovations and risk governance in the framework of sustainability transitions. And, in the current political context, notably in the European Union, there is a need for intellectual rigour around the concept, both from a research and a praxis point of view.