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Empowering People to Protect the Planet: the environmental dimension of SDG 16

Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and air and water pollution are among the global environmental problems that affect everyone’s health and wellbeing. Tackling such challenges in the context of social and economic development is at the very heart of efforts to attain the Sustainable Development Goals. The rights of the public to timely access information and to participate in decision-making in environmental matters are essential for the effective response to these challenges. Access to justice is a guardian for securing these rights. Furthering the environmental dimension of SDG 16 can thereby contribute to the achievement of multiple Goals.



To share experience on how to further this dimension, a peer learning Round Table was held at the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development for the UNECE region in Geneva on 22 March 2019. The Round Table was organized by the secretariat of the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme, International Telecommunication Union and the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. The event was moderated by the Co-ordinator of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Economic and Environmental Activities. The rapporteur for the Round Table was the Executive Secretary of the SDGs National Council of Georgia.

Major achievements and challenges

The UNECE region has made good progress in promoting the environmental dimension of SDG 16. The vast majority of countries has established legislative and institutional frameworks and uses ICTs to promote access to information and justice, and engagement of the public in decision-making related to environmental matters. Furthermore, a network of 60 Aarhus Centres in 14 countries has been playing a supportive role.

Factors contributing to these achievements have been catalysed through two solid legal guardians in the region - the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters and its Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs), which help Governments make significant advancements in promoting the environmental dimension of SDG 16.

However, a number of challenges still exist.

With respect to access to environmental information (target 16.10), there is a demand for real-time, accurate, geo-referenced and ready to reuse environmental data and information to be provided through web and mobile applications. Moreover, there is a need for online environmental information systems that integrate PRTRs, environmental monitoring and other relevant systems (e.g. on energy, water and health).

Challenges in achieving effective public participation in decision-making (target 16.7) – also in international and in transboundary contexts – include framework laws that have not yet been accompanied by regulations with detailed procedures. Also, time frames for public participation procedures, consideration of the public’s comments, and provision of training to public officials responsible for such procedures are among the challenges identified.

Safeguarding fundamental freedoms and enabling a safe space for all members of the public (target 16.10) to engage in decision-making without being threatened is critical for preventing potential conflicts. In some countries, there has been a rise in harassment, repression and even murder of environmental defenders. Among major challenges encountered are fear of reporting such incidents, impunity, the difficulties associated with trying to uncover the perpetrators, and the establishment of effective mechanisms to protect environmental defenders.

As for access to justice (target 16.3), efforts need to be made to improve timeliness and proper enforcement of final decisions, further reduce financial barriers, promote access to legal aid for members of the public, and monitor the effectiveness of the procedures.

Learning from each other

To showcase how these challenges could be overcome, a number of successful examples were presented during the Round Table.

In Ukraine, an online portal and smartphone application were used to increase effectiveness of public participation procedures in environmental impact assessment. These tools also helped to reduce corruption by making authorities’ decisions more transparent. One of the vehicles to channel public’s views into decision-making processes are National Human Rights Institutions. The Hungarian Ombudsman for Future Generations office initiated stakeholders’ consultations and successfully channelled their outcomes into shaping a new legislation significantly affecting groundwater availability. Organization of public participation procedures in a transboundary context proved to be challenging across the region. In this regard a number of measures on how to engage public effectively in decision-making on the extension of a power plant in a transboundary area were shared by Serbia. The Supreme Court of Kazakhstan has implemented several practical measures to address the limited capacity of judges to handle environmental cases and the absence of specialized courts dealing exclusively with environmental matters. 

Growing security concerns can lead to restricting access to information and possibilities for public participation. A representative of the NGO Earth Justice showcased how countries could handle this challenge. France ensured effective participation of civil society at the Paris Climate Change Conference, even after a terrorist attack. It allowed a broad accreditation of NGOs and established a designated area for civil society next to the meeting venue. Norway played a leading role in the protection of human rights defenders by promoting this issue through international instruments and bilateral agreements.

The way forward

Priority actions to reinforce the ability of Governments to further the environmental dimension of SDG 16, include:

(a) promoting greater political support to transparency, rule of law, accountability and effective and inclusive public participation in decision-making;

(b) promoting effective and independent administrative and judicial review procedures, by eliminating standing-related, financial and other barriers; and by strengthening capacities of review bodies and by fostering international judicial cooperation;

(c) encouraging use of modern technologies and innovative approaches to managing integrated data;

(d) allocating sufficient resources as well as strengthening capacity of authorities and relevant stakeholders; and

(e) taking measures to promote safe and enabling space for the public and ensure “zero” tolerance to any threats towards environmental defenders.

UNECE stands ready to support countries in their efforts to advance the environmental dimension of SDG 16.