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Accessing environmental information in the Digital Age — What the Aarhus Convention is doing

How do we distinguish environmental information from other information? Is information on fishing vessels environmental information? Should test data on pesticides, primary statistical data and personal data on business leaders whose companies are releasing pollutants be disclosed without restrictions? Should online access to environmental information be a part of digital agenda initiatives?

These were some of the questions discussed at a meeting of the Task Force on Access to Information under the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), held earlier this month in Geneva (3–5 December 2014) under the leadership of the Republic of Moldova. The meeting gathered representatives of numerous Parties to the Convention, non-governmental organizations, Aarhus Centres, regional environmental centres, businesses from across the region and international organizations.

Discussions particularly focused on exploring the relationship of environmental information to statistical, geospatial and agricultural information and getting access to raw and primary statistical data. Highlighting the cross-cutting nature of environmental information, the participants stressed that Parties’ policies and legal regimes in other sectors should meet the requirements of the Aarhus Convention as well as human rights law.

Application of certain restrictions on access to environmental information was also discussed, with a special focus on access to information on emissions, such as discharges of pollutants into water or disposal of wastes. The Task Force called on Parties to apply the grounds for refusal in access to environmental information in a restrictive way. It also urged Parties to direct their officials to apply a presumption of maximum disclosure when information on emissions into the environment was requested.

Access to environment-related product information also received attention with a focus on voluntary eco-labelling.

Participants shared recent relevant developments in information and communication technology to improve the interoperability of information systems and data sharing at the national level. Many considered there was a great opportunity to promote public access to environmental information within e-government, open government data, Digital Agenda and other initiatives, as well as involving the public in supplying and reusing environmental data.

Participants also learned about recent developments with regard to the shared environmental information systems, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems and United Nation initiatives on global geospatial information management and the data revolution for sustainable development.

The outcomes of the Task Force work will pave the way for the implementation of policy and practical measures to facilitate public access to environmental information and enhance coordination within the e-government, open government data, Digital Agenda and other national, regional and global initiatives.

For further information, please contact: 

Ella Behlyarova
Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation
in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters
Tel: + 41 (0)22 917 2376
E-mail: ella.behlyarova@unece.org