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Highlights of Aarhus week in Geneva

The participants in the twenty-second meeting of the Working Group of the Parties to the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), held in Geneva from 19 to 21 June 2018, considered a wide range of issues related to promotion and implementation of the Convention. The meeting included a special segment on the twentieth anniversary of the Convention’s adoption and the two thematic sessions on, respectively, access to information and promoting the application of the principles of the Aarhus Convention in international forums.

Furthering effective public participation in international decision-making on environmental matters

The thematic session on promoting the application of the principles of the Aarhus Convention in international forums focused primarily on two issues: the promotion of transparency and effective public participation in international decision-making on chemicals and waste and climate change. Also reviewed were stakeholder engagement in the United Nations Environment Assembly and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) access to information policies; Sustainable Development Goals processes; and international financial institutions. Parties reiterated that the promotion of transparency and effective public participation in international decision-making on environmental matters was key to achievement of the Goals, particularly Goals 16 and 17.

Giving the public a say on chemicals and wastes

Because technical and complex issues such as transporting hazardous waste across borders, handling mercury, trading hazardous chemicals and pesticides and managing chemicals do not capture the attention of the general public, few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are active in these areas and broad public participation is difficult to achieve. 

The thematic session showed that many Parties to the Aarhus Convention, the UNEP Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions and the Minamata Convention on Mercury and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) already have in place mechanisms for promoting access to information and public participation. These include clearing houses, online training, dissemination of information and opportunities for NGOs and other stakeholders to participate in decision-making. At the same time, review of the procedures and practices of these forums revealed several areas in which improvement is needed. These include increasing financial support for NGOs; enabling them to participate in certain bodies under the aforementioned Conventions, particularly their Bureaux, as has already been done for the SAICM; and increasing the transparency of decision-making processes. A number of NGOs, including Arnika, the European Environmental Bureau and Earthjustice (representing the European ECO-Forum), shared their views on challenges related to access to information and participation in these forums. Among other things, they recommended that regular meetings between NGOs and Parties to the BRS Conventions, the Minamata Convention on Mercury and the SAICM be held, as had been done under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in order to give NGOs an opportunity to brief Parties on the Aarhus principles and raise awareness of the Almaty Guidelines on Promoting the Application of the Principles of the Aarhus Convention in International Forums. 

Albania shared its experience with an integrated electronic register through which the public is notified of and consulted on strategic national and local documents, plans and programmes. In 2015–2016, the Ministry of Environment had organized 11 public hearings on chemicals legislation through this portal. In Slovakia, a ministerial working group, including representatives of NGOs and the private sector, had been set up so that NGOs could influence the drafting and implementation of the Minamata Convention on Mercury and the preparation of national legislation on mercury. In Germany, the national SAICM focal point contacts all stakeholders in order to give them an opportunity to comment and provide feedback on, for example, the evaluation report on the Strategic Approach. It is hoped that these good practices will be applied by other Parties in order to engage the public in international decision-making on chemicals.

The Working Group also noted the need to strengthen cooperation between national focal points for the Aarhus Convention and BRS Conventions, the Minamata Convention on Mercury and the SAICM in order to promote the principles of the Aarhus Convention in the respective processes effectively.

Following the panel discussions, the Chair of the thematic session concluded, among other things, that citizens’ understanding of and engagement on these issues should be enhanced by carry out ongoing awareness-raising and capacity-building activities. 

Applying the Aarhus principles to UNFCCC COP 24

Mr. Tomasz Chruszczow, Special Envoy for Climate Change in Poland, updated the Working Group on the preparations for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 24) and, in particular, opportunities for public participation in the Conference. He did so in response to concerns expressed with regard to the security measures planned by Poland, which, according to several NGOs, will not meet the requirements of the Aarhus Convention. The Special Envoy emphasized Poland’s commitment to promoting the Convention’s principles in the lead-up to and during COP 24. This pledge was well received by Parties and stakeholders. 

Access to information, modern technology and the Sustainable Development Goals

For the first time, the Working Group held a thematic session on key topics related to the first pillar of the Aarhus Convention, access to information. The discussions focused on a number of issues related to the scope of environmental information, its dissemination and provision by various public authorities, timeliness and grounds for refusal. During the discussion, the need to match obligations under the Convention with the opportunities provided by modern technologies was highlighted. It was also emphasized that effective public access to environment-related product information should be facilitated by and better linked to implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. NGOs drew attention to a number of challenges, including the urgent need to take into account new technologies, such as mobile phone applications, blockchains and remote sensing, when promoting access to information. Good practices were shared by Georgia (on the scope of environmental information), Serbia (on ensuring restrictive interpretation and considering the public interest when applying grounds for refusal), Kazakhstan (on the format and timeliness of the information provided) and the European Commission (on the dissemination of environmental information). 

The Working Group reiterated that effective public access to environmental information supports the achievement of target 16.10 of the Sustainable Development Goals and underpins the implementation of other relevant Goals (for example, Goals 3 (health), 6 (water) and 12 (sustainable consumption and production).