Content of the Convention
Access to Information
The information pillar covers both the 'passive' or reactive aspect of access to information, i.e. the obligation on public
authorities to respond to public requests for information, and the 'active' aspect dealing with other obligations relating to
providing environmental information, such as collection, updating, public dissemination and so on.
The reactive aspect is addressed in article 4, which contains
the main essential elements of a system for securing the
public's right to obtain information on request from public
Presumption in favour of access: Any environmental
information held by a public authority must be provided when
requested by a member of the public, unless it can be shown to
fall within a finite list of exempt categories.
'Any person' right: the right of access extends to any
person, without his or her having to prove or state an interest
or a reason for requesting the information.
Broad definition of 'environmental information': the
scope of information covered is quite broad, encompassing a
non-exhaustive list of elements of the environment (air,
water, soil etc.); factors, activities or measures affecting
those elements; and human health and safety, conditions of
life, cultural sites and built structures, to the extent that
these are or may be affected by the aforementioned
elements, factors, activities or measures.
Time limits: The information must be provided as soon as
possible, and at the latest within one month after submission
of the request. However, this period may be extended by a
further month where the volume and complexity of the
information justify this. The requester must be notified of any
such extension and the reasons for it.
Form of information: The definition of environmental
information covers information in any material form (written,
visual, aural, electronic etc). There is a qualified requirement on
public authorities to provide it in the form specified by the
Charges: Public authorities may impose a charge for
supplying information provided the charge does not exceed a
Exemptions: Public authorities may withhold information
where disclosure would adversely affect various interests,
e.g. national defence, international relations, public security,
the course of justice, commercial confidentiality, intellectual
property rights, personal privacy, the confidentiality of the
proceedings of public authorities; or where the information
requested has been supplied voluntarily or consists of internal
communications or material in the course of completion.
There are however some restrictions on these exemptions,
e.g. the commercial confidentiality exemption may not be
invoked to withhold information on emissions which is relevant
for the protection of the environment.
Public interest test: To prevent abuse of the exemptions by
over-secretive public authorities, the Convention stipulates
that the aforementioned exemptions are to be interpreted in
a restrictive way, and in all cases may only be applied when
the public interest served by disclosure has been taken into
Refusals: Refusals, and the reasons for them, are to be
issued in writing where requested. A similar time limit applies
as for the supply of information: one month from the date of
the request, with provision for extending this by a further
month where the complexity of the information justifies this.
Onward referral of requests: Where a public authority does
not hold the information requested, it should either direct the
requester to another public authority which it believes might
have the information, or transfer the request to that public
authority and notify the requester of this.
The Convention also imposes active information duties on
Parties. These include quite general obligations on public
authorities to be in possession of up to date environmental
information which is relevant to their functions, and to make
information 'efffectively accessible' to the public by providing
information on the type and scope of information held and the
process by which it can be obtained.
The Convention also contains several more specific
Internet access: Parties are required to 'progressively' make
environmental information publicly available in electronic
databases which can easily be accessed through public
The Convention specifies certain categories of information
(e.g. state of the environment reports, texts of legislation
related to the environment) which should be made available
in this form.
The Parties adopted non-binding Recommendations on the More Effective Use of Electronic Information Tools to Provide Public Access to Environmental Information at
their second ordinary meeting (Almaty, Kazakhstan, 25-27
May 2005) to provide guidance on implementation of the
State-of-the-environment reporting: Parties are required
to produce national reports on the state of the environment
at regular intervals not exceeding four years.
Pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTRs): PRTRs
have proven to be a highly effective and relatively low cost
means of gathering environmental information from the
private sector and putting it into the public domain, thereby
exerting a downward pressure on levels of pollution.
However, very few countries in the region have established
PRTRs. The Convention requires Parties to take steps to
progressively establish such registers.
Emergency situations: Public authorities are required to
immediately provide the public with all information in their
possession which could enable the public to take measures to
prevent or mitigate harm arising from an imminent threat to
human health or the environment.
For more on the content of the Aarhus Convention, please refer to the Implementation Guide.