Public participation for a safe and sustainable future for all
Should the public be consulted about whether to extend the lifetime of a chemical or nuclear plant? Should the public have a say when there is a proposed change to a mining activity? What about the rights of future generations? Are their interests protected when deciding on sustainable development issues?
These were some of the questions discussed by representatives of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), NGOs, Aarhus Centres, regional environmental centres and international organizations on 15 and 16 December 2016 in Geneva, at the seventh meeting of the Task Force on Public Participation in Decision-making.
The Task Force meeting, led by Italy, focused on a number of sensitive issues. For instance, with the design lifetimes (30–40 years) of most of the 186 nuclear plants in Europe coming to an end over the next 10 years, should the views of the public be taken into account when deciding whether or not to extend their lifetimes? In that regard, participants stressed the need to raise awareness about the public’s right to have a say in any process related to the extension of or change in activities such as chemical or nuclear plants and landfills.
The lifetime extension of activities, including that of chemical or nuclear power plants, was singled out as a matter of significant public concern, not only for local communities living in the vicinity of power plants but also for neighbouring countries. Drawing on various legal instruments, including the UNECE Aarhus Convention, the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention) and the European Union Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, the Task Force also recognized the need for public participation when a decision will have a transboundary environmental impact. While acknowledging the challenges associated with financial and language barriers and the difficulty in reaching vulnerable and marginalized groups, speakers nevertheless highlighted several examples of successful bilateral or multilateral cooperation, including through informal exchanges of information.
In the light of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the relevant Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets, the Task Force also recalled the importance of engaging the public in decision-making related to sustainable development. The concept of sustainable development goes hand in hand with stakeholder involvement. The attainment of the SDGs is only possible if ownership is shared between all stakeholders, including Governments, NGOs, the private sector and the public.
Sustainable development decision-making addresses important issues with long-term impacts. Speakers recognized that finding a way to take into account the views and interests of the future generations, which will be affected by such impacts, was an important challenge for all countries. It was suggested that countries should consider exploring ways to involve youth in decision-making through education for sustainable development, awareness-raising, youth campaigns and youth parliaments. In this context, the role of women was highlighted as being key in mobilizing society, raising awareness and educating the public, including future generations, on environmental risks and challenges and on the rights of children. The Task Force acknowledged that building the Future We Want means that no one must be left behind. Instead, priority should be given to engage the public in decision-making and to reaching out to all groups, including the poorest and most vulnerable. The Aarhus Convention, once again, offered a host of solutions on these issues.