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First session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention)

Geneva, 20-22 April 2010
Welcome Address by Mr. Ján Kubiš
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to address you today at the first session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Kiev Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers.

Almost seven years ago at the fifth Ministerial Conference ‘Environment for Europe’, the Protocol was adopted in the city of Kiev at an extraordinary session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention.

The Protocol establishes a new international benchmark in securing public access to information on threats posed to our environment by toxic emissions. It will enable ordinary citizens, simply using the Internet, to find out about the major sources of polluting emissions in their immediate neighbourhoods.

As you know, at the heart of the Protocol is the obligation on each Party to establish a publicly accessible national register containing information on the releases and transfers of pollutants from a certain potentially polluting activities, including chemical plants, power stations, oil and gas refineries, mining operations and waste management installations, to name just a few. Companies in these sectors will be required to report annually, and on a facility-specific basis, on the emissions to the environment and the transfers to other facilities. The pollutants covered by the Protocol include a wide range of toxic and/or polluting substances, including greenhouse gases, ozone depleting substances, heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants.

The registers must be publicly accessible through the Internet free of charge, must be searchable and must provide timely and user-friendly access, with only limited confidentiality provisions.

As you know, whereas the information provisions under the Aarhus Convention mainly focus on the right of the public to have access to information held by public authorities, the Protocol brings in a new dimension by indirectly creating a reporting obligation for parts of the private sector. Indeed, representatives of the private sector were actively involved in the negotiation of the Protocol and we hope that they will continue to be active partners as the Protocol moves into the implementation phase.

The Protocol regulates information about pollution, rather than pollution directly. By putting information on the levels of pollution from individual facilities into the public domain, it provides an incentive for operators to reduce their levels of pollution. With carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases numbered among the pollutants covered by the Protocol, it is one of a number of instruments that can contribute to the global efforts to limit climate change. Furthermore, there are potential synergies between the reporting requirements under the Protocol and reporting requirements under other instruments, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or the ECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. Indeed, the Protocol explicitly encourages an integrated approach to avoid duplicative reporting.

Hopefully regulatory authorities and the industries that they regulate will benefit from the Protocol, through getting a clearer picture of major sources of emissions and the movements of chemicals.

To date, 24 States and the European Union have ratified the Protocol. This represents a real ‘critical mass’ of countries. The implementation of the Protocol by the European Union by means of an EU Regulation having direct effect throughout its 27 Member States and bringing together PRTR data from throughout the EU deserves special mention, as it gave an important boost to the ratification process, leading to the entry into force of the Protocol on 8 October 2009.

I encourage the remaining Signatories to the Protocol and other interested States to take the next steps towards becoming Parties to the Protocol. It is noteworthy that while being a Protocol to the Aarhus Convention, it is open to States that are not Parties to the Convention. It is also open to accession by States from outside the UNECE region. Thus, despite its important link to the Aarhus Convention, the Protocol has some of the characteristics of an independent treaty with a potentially global scope.

It is perhaps not surprising that most of the Protocol’s current Parties are countries with well developed economies. On the other hand, it is encouraging to see the level of interest expressed by countries with economies in transition in eventually acceding to the Protocol. Such countries may well need technical and financial support in order to fully realise the goals of the Protocol. I strongly encourage donor governments and organizations engaged in PRTR-related activities to provide such support, in order to maintain the current momentum.

Implementation and compliance are the challenges that follow upon the heels of ratification of any treaty, and this Protocol is no exception. The decisions that you will hopefully adopt tomorrow – on a compliance mechanism, on financial arrangements, on a work programme, on reporting requirements - promise to provide a solid framework ensuring steady progress towards more effective implementation of the Protocol by a growing number of Parties.

I particularly welcome the participation of civil society organizations representing the environmentally concerned public in this meeting. As the major beneficiaries of the rights to information that are implicit in the Protocol and active users of the information contained in the registers, it is to be expected and hoped that they will continue to be fully engaged partners in the processes under the Protocol, as they are under the Aarhus Convention, to ensure that Parties remain mindful of their obligations under the Protocol.

I also welcome the active involvement of international and regional organisations in promoting and supporting the development of PRTRs. I would particularly mention OECD, which in the 1990s, following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, kindled and carried the torch of PRTRs for many years and remains active in promoting PRTRs and developing practical guidance; UNEP and UNITAR, both of which have actively supported PRTR-related capacity building efforts around the world; and more recently, the OSCE, through its sponsorship of Aarhus Centres and its cooperation in the development of PRTRs, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia regions; and the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe, which has been a strong proponent of this work in South East Europe.

UNECE has been glad to provide the secretariat of the International PRTR Coordination Group which brings these and other organizations together, and we hope that this constructive collaboration will continue into the future.

UNECE has also been glad to cooperate in the synergies process of the Basel, Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions, in which context I would emphasise the important contribution that the Aarhus Convention and the PRTR Protocol can make to transparency and awareness-raising in the field of chemicals.

Dear colleagues, this meeting brings to an end a seven-year preparatory journey, involving many discussions, many documents, many meetings. But it also launches the next phase in our work, a phase focussed on practical implementation, on expansion of the geographical scope of the Protocol as more States become Parties. I am confident that your work here will provide a strong foundation for the work ahead.

This meeting has been held in extraordinary circumstances. I commend those of you who despite all the odds – and the whims of an Icelandic volcano – have succeeded in reaching Geneva from distant locations (the delegate who made the journey by road from Riga probably takes the prize), and I welcome the fact that several Parties and other stakeholders are participating through audio links and some speakers will today provide video presentations. It demonstrates that crisis may provoke technological innovation and creative thinking.

Let me conclude by wishing you every success with the remainder of this meeting and with the work that lies ahead.

Thank you for your attention.