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the Federal Government from 1976 inGermany

Once damage to the environment has already occurred, the only option is to put it right by retrospective remediation. If there is a risk to the environment – that is to say, if environmental damage is foreseeable with a reasonable degree of probability – the principle of danger prevention requires that its occurrence be prevented. The precautionary principle goes one important step further: The intention is for dangers to the environment to be prevented from arising in the first place. The precautionary principle therefore leads us to act in good time and with foresight in order to avoid environmental pollution.

The two dimensions of the precautionary principle are risk prevention and taking care of resources. Risk prevention means that, in the event of incomplete or uncertain knowledge of the nature, extent, probability and causality of environmental damage and dangers, one acts in a precautionary manner to prevent such environmental damage from the outset. Taking care of resources means handling natural resources such as water, soil and air with a view to their long-term conservation in the interest of future generations.

Guiding principle of environmental policy

The precautionary principle is the guiding principle of environmental policy at German, EU and international levels. As such it plays a central role in environmental policy decisions. As already stated in the environmental report of the Federal Government from 1976  and again in 1986, with the “precautionary environmental protection guidelines”, the Federal government declared the precautionary principle – alongside the polluter-pays and cooperation principles – to be a guiding principle of its environmental policy. The European Union’s environmental policy is also based on the precautionary principle (article 191 of the Lisbon Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union). In its communication in 2000 on the application of the precautionary principle, the European Commission stressed the importance of the precautionary principle as an essential element of EU policy on risk prevention. At the international level, participants in the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in 1992 committed themselves to applying the precautionary principle for the protection of the environment. The precautionary principle is also enshrined in international law in several international conventions such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the OSPAR Convention for the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic.

The precautionary principle is also an important guideline for the work of the German Environment Agency, inasmuch as we see ourselves as an early warning system for the early detection and assessment of possible future risks to people and the environment and the proposal of solutions.