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Effective public participation - why it matters

Effective public participation is the key precondition for transparent and accountable governance. It helps Governments to tackle inequality by ensuring that all persons, including those from the poorest segments of society and rural communities, are able to participate in decisions that impact their lives. However, more efforts are needed to ensure that the public has not only theoretical rights, but also practical instruments and opportunities to influence the decision-making process on environmental matters.

To identify the existing challenges and to mainstream good practices on public participation in relation to different projects, plans and policies, 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 its sixth meeting in Geneva on 10 and 11 February 2016 under the leadership of Italy. The meeting gathered representatives of Parties to the Convention, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international organizations, Aarhus Centres and regional environmental centres from across the region.

At the outset of the meeting, participants underscored that effective public participation was more critical now than ever in the context of achieving Sustainable Development Goals and implementing the Paris agreement on climate change.

Effective and early participation

The Task Force reiterated that the proper identification and notification of the public and its early involvement in decision-making when all options are still open were essential preconditions for effective public participation. Failure to properly identify and notify the public vitiates the whole public participation process. To ensure the broadest coverage of the public, the means and tools for identifying and notification them should take social, economic and cultural factors into account. In this regard, a number of good practices were mentioned, including: consulting the potentially affected people about their preferred way of communication before the process begins; developing a “public engagement plan”; using Facebook and Twitter to reach out to youth; involving well-known local people in the dissemination of information; and taking into account the public’s comments and alternative proposals at the earliest stage, when a plan or project can be modified more easily.

Activities with a significant effect on the environment

Participants discussed one of the Convention’s most challenging provisions, related to decisions on activities that may have a significant effect on the environment. The discussion demonstrated that a number of activities that at first glance appear not to have a significant impact on the environment in reality do have a significant impact. This includes, for example, the construction of golf courses or activities related to conservation of natural habitats of wild fauna and flora. It was concluded that there is still insufficient understanding of the interpretation of this provision and a lack of examples of its practical implementation.

Energy-related planning

A thematic session on energy-related planning triggered lively discussion. Participants heard examples of different aspects of public participation procedure with regard to energy infrastructure projects, nuclear power stations, hydropower plants, small electric lines, biofuels and renewable energy sources. Among particularities of energy-related planning, participants highlighted the complex, multi-stage decision-making process, the fact that the decision-making was often extremely politicized and that such plans often had a large-scale effect across borders and generations.

NGOs took very active role in the discussion and expressed concerns, such as the often unbalanced presentation of the social and economic benefits as compared with the possible negative environmental consequences; the absence of early public participation during the elaboration of strategic documents when a “zero option” was still possible; a lack of understanding of the different stages of the decision-making procedure; the absence of a timely assessment of ecological and safety requirements; the lack of a toxic waste assessment when projects are already at the construction stage; the complexity and length of technical documentation, as well as insufficient time for its examination and for the submission of comments; and difficulties in challenging energy-related decisions in courts.

The discussion also helped to reveal good practice in energy-related decision-making, such as developing manuals for public participation procedures; “road-mapping” of the overall public participation process; establishing effective cross-border cooperation; and preparing reasonable alternatives for public scrutiny. The Task Force agreed that ensuring effective public participation in energy-related planning was of the utmost importance. It encouraged the Parties to eliminate all obstacles to such planning and to ensure a balanced presentation of the economic benefits and environmental consequences during energy-related planning.

It is hoped that the outcomes of the meeting will promote good practices, clarify common obstacles and improve the effectiveness of public participation in decision-making on environmental matters across the region.

Please visit: http://www.unece.org/env/pp/aarhus/ppdm6.html#/ for further information and for updates, such as presentations and the meeting report, which will be posted online soon.

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