Improving outcomes and reducing costs of decision-making impacting the environment
What is the best way to effectively identify and notify the public concerned about proposed activities affecting the environment? Are countries providing early public participation when all options, including the “zero” option (doing nothing), are genuinely open? Is it right if at public hearings the audience consists of a large group of men in suits with no elderly persons or women? How can Aarhus principles help peacebuilding in Myanmar and China? What are the obstacles to effective public participation in national climate change-related decision-making on the way to the Paris agreement?
These were some of the questions discussed at a meeting of the Task Force on Public Participation in Decision-making under the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), held in Geneva on 23 and 24 February 2015 under the leadership of Italy. The meeting gathered representatives of numerous Parties to the Convention, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Aarhus Centres, regional environmental centres, businesses from across the region and international organizations.
Discussions particularly focused on exploring identification and notification of the public concerned, early public participation, the role of private actors and project developers and taking due account of comments and outcomes of public participation. In addition, participants benefitted from several innovative practices of public participation shared at the meeting.
Participants learned why marginalized groups, including women, ethnic minorities and the elderly, were not present at public hearings in some countries and how peacebuilding approaches might link to public participation in decision-making on environmental matters. The Task Force heard strong concerns with regard to an offshore gas storage facility, allegedly built without proper public participation, that had led to numerous earthquakes in Spain, resulting in costly compensation payments.
The Task Force agreed, among other things, to further consider how to address the challenges to effective identification and notification of the public concerned. It also agreed on the need to train those responsible for identification and notification, and on the need to allocate adequate resources.
The second day of the meeting focused on climate change. Participants explored the approaches taken in various countries to public participation in national climate change-related decision-making, and shared recent developments, such as how the public and developers were involved in the building of wind turbines, in designing low-carbon scenarios and in programmes to address water-level rise. Participants also learned about potential linkages with the dialogues on article 6 of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). NGOs also spoke, expressing concerns about numerous lacks, including legal provisions requiring public participation in climate change decision-making, a specific structure to involve the public, funding, efforts to involve the public on a regular basis and public awareness of the importance of climate change problems and/or the decision-making process. The Task Force agreed that ensuring effective public participation in climate change-related decision-making is of the utmost importance and encouraged close cooperation between national focal points of UNFCCC and the Aarhus Convention at the national level.
It has been demonstrated that if the public is able to participate in decision-making from the outset, it is likely that the final outcome of a project will be more acceptable to them and less harmful to the environment. It also means that hidden or unexpected aspects of a proposed activity can be uncovered early, helping to avoid costly mistakes. It is hoped the outcomes of the Task Force work will help to pave the way for the implementation of policy and practical measures to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making across the region and beyond.
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