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The Aarhus Convention safeguards transparency and supports disaster risk reduction and measurement of Sustainable Development Goals

Decision makers, local communities, private sector actors, academia and the public increasingly rely on environmental information when addressing multifaceted environmental challenges and pursuing sustainable development. New digital technologies, interoperability between different information systems and intelligent data usage increase the accessibility and reusability of such information.

In order to exchange experiences, learn from good practices and support further progress in this area, representatives of Governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, academia and other stakeholders attended the sixth meeting of the 

Task Force on Access to Information under the Aarhus Convention and the UNECE – European Environment Agency joint workshop on “Open Data for the Environment” (Geneva, 2–4 October 2019). 

One of the main subjects addressed was synergy in implementing the Convention’s requirement to effectively provide information to the public in the event of any imminent threat to human health or the environment and the respective work under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

The discussion underscored the importance of transparency, effective risk assessment, the adequate flow of information and the use of suitable communication tools – such as emergency telephone numbers and radio networks, media, online portals and mobile applications.

Another important issue considered by the Task Force was the protection of whistle-blowers and other environmental defenders, which is key to strengthening transparency. In this regard, it was stressed that, in addition to supporting the implementation of the Aarhus Convention, effective legislative and practical measures enabling whistle-blowers, workers and other persons to report violations will safeguard the respective commitments of the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers, the relevant International Labour Organization instruments and the respective principles regarding human rights and the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances.

The participants also discussed how to harness the benefits of e-government, open data initiatives and the increased use of modern digital technologies by the public to produce environmental information. Several examples of citizen science, local and traditional knowledge, reuse of public sector information and other citizen engagement initiatives regarding air quality monitoring, biodiversity and environmental law enforcement were considered. They also looked at developments regarding the state of environment reporting, electronic public records, the use of Copernicus and other Earth observation systems, big data and health-related information.

The participants took stock of the recent activities of the United Nations Environment Programme, Group on Earth Observations, the UNECE Statistical Division and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research designed to measure and monitor progress towards environment-related Sustainable Development Goals. The discussion focused on key findings from the sixth Global Environment Outlook, possible additional measures to address challenges in collecting and sharing data for environment-related Sustainable Development Goal indicators and opportunities to use data resulting from Earth observation systems and Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers for this purpose, as relevant. 

Furthermore, UNECE and the European Environment Agency organized a joint workshop on “Open Data for the Environment” under the auspices of the Task Force. The event was supported by the European Union-funded project of the European Environment Agency on further implementation of the Shared Environment Information System principles in the six countries of the European Neighbourhood Policy East region (ENI SEIS II East project). Participants considered the project outputs of the first regional meeting on open data and e-government services for the environment (Kyiv, 5 and 6 March 2019) and national round tables in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. The main subjects for discussion included open data maturity reports and road maps for these countries to improve the dissemination and sharing of environmental data through e-government and open data initiatives.

The outcomes of both meetings will be used to update recommendations on electronic information tools that are being prepared for consideration by the Convention’s Meeting of the Parties in 2021. The recommendations are expected to assist Parties and interested Governments in the region and beyond in shaping environmental information policies.

Meeting web pages:

Task Force on Access to Information under the Aarhus Convention: http://www.unece.org/index.php?id=50574

Joint UNECE – EEA Workshop on Open Data for the Environment:

Useful resource: https://aarhusclearinghouse.unece.org/