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Expert Opinions

“What would Europe look like without the Espoo Convention?”

There are lessons that can be learned from the measures taken to prevent, reduce and control significant adverse transboundary environmental impact under the Espoo Convention, which show the value added of the Convention for sustainable development in Europe.

When in the late 1970s Czechoslovakia and Hungary agreed to build dam structures on the Danube River at Gabcikovo (Czechoslovakia, now in Slovakia) and Nagymaros (Hungary) to produce electricity, provide flood control and improve navigation, the discussion on transboundary environmental effects in Europe developed. However, the two countries disagreed on the assessment of the effects of these dams on the environment. The resulting transboundary dispute, which was considered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the 1990s, tarnished the relationship of the neighbouring countries and slowed efficient decision-making and economic development for over two decades.

If, at the time, the Espoo Convention — as the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context is commonly known — had been in force and applied, perhaps decades of sour relations, failed negotiations and years of litigation could have been avoided.

A transboundary environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedure gives decision makers information about the possible environmental effects of proposed activities beyond the borders of their country. At the same time, it gives stakeholders and the public in another country the opportunity to be informed and consulted about an activity that may have a significant adverse environmental impact. Such exchanges promote not only environmental sustainability, but also State accountability and public participation, in other words better governance for a better environment.

Thanks to the Espoo Convention inter-State cooperation on the sustainable management of natural resources, human health, safety, flora, fauna, soil, air, water, climate, landscape and historical and cultural or other physical structures, or the interaction among them, have come to the top of Europe’s agenda and national environmental, health and other authorities have intensified exchange and collaboration. The benefits in terms of the prevention of significant environmental degradation are boundless.

Since its adoption, the Convention has been applied thousands of times in Europe by Parties. Remarkably, it has also been applied by other States, notably by the Russian Federation, in the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline project, which stretches across the Baltic Sea from the Russian Federation to Germany within the territorial waters or the exclusive economic zones of five countries (Denmark, Germany, Finland, Russian Federation and Sweden). Each of these countries were at the same time affected by parts of the project outside their territorial control, while the project also affected Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Europe benefits from the Espoo Convention and it is no surprise that the ICJ recognized in its Pulp Mills on the River Uruguay (2010) case judgement that conducting a transboundary EIA is a requirement of general international law. The Espoo Convention provides opportunities for cooperative international sustainable development, and the best practice developed under the Convention in the region should be shared with the rest of the world.

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Opinions expressed in this section are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of UNECE, of the bodies established under its international legal agreements/conventions, or of the secretariat.