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The power of environmental transparency — the Aarhus Convention helps to achieve Sustainable Development Goals

Up-to-date, accurate and easy-to-find environmental information empowers public officials, entrepreneurs, workers, consumers and each of us to take informed decisions that impact our environment and well-being. Information is also key for fostering transparent governance, innovation and greening the economy. While e-Government, Open Data and other similar initiatives have set a trend towards greater openness regarding information, remaining challenges to effective public access to environmental information may still undermine the protection of the environment and also hamper sustainable human, economic and social development, as provided for in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals.

To identify and address new trends, challenges and lessons learned in advancing environmental transparency, 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 its fourth meeting in Geneva from 8 to 10 December 2015. Under the leadership of the Republic of Moldova, the meeting gathered together representatives of many of the Convention’s Parties, non-governmental organizations, academia and businesses from across and outside the region, as well as international organizations.

Scope of environmental information

Priority areas requiring a better access to information identified by participants included: the quality of the environment and emissions into the environment, hazardous substances and wastes, decision-making on environmental matters and environment-related product information. In particular, the Task Force highlighted the importance of maximum disclosure of information on emissions from all sources.

Widening open access

Participants shared practical experience in dealing with requests for sensitive environmental information, whether it concerned the proceedings of public authorities, investigations, national security and defence, internal correspondence or commercial and industrial information. Many good examples were presented, linked to disclosing e-mails between employees, improving access to maps, ensuring the protection of public interest and carrying out transparency programmes.

Effective dissemination

Many delegates also reported on a shift from passive access, to environmental information upon request, to active and effective dissemination of environmental information through websites, mobile applications, social media and other tools. Further steps were taken by the Parties and stakeholders in advancing e-Government, Open Data and other similar initiatives. Participants also learned about the benefits of allowing reuse of environmental information generated in public sector.

Cooperation with other international forums

Participants learned about recent developments with regard to the shared environmental information systems in the pan-European region, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems and United Nation initiatives on global geospatial information management, big data (data of high volume, velocity and variety that require specific technology and analytical methods to be of value) and the data revolution (the international process aiming to improve the data that is essential for decision-making, accountability and solving development challenges). At the meeting, different ECE programmes and other organizations were able to match their expertise on the modernization of data policy and electronic information tools in geospatial, statistical and other spheres relating to the environmental matters, and discover complementarities in their work and experience. 

Participants concluded that furthering public access to environmental information would contribute to implementation of a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Task Force therefore invited Parties to promote widely the relevance of implementation of the first pillar of the Convention to achieving SDGs.

The outcomes of the Task Force work will facilitate Parties’ efforts to promote public access to environmental information and contribute to better cooperation between different public authorities, non-governmental organizations, Aarhus Centres and other stakeholders.

For further information, please contact:

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