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2016 Aarhus week - How the Aarhus Convention contributes to sustainable development

  

The three pillars of the UNECE Aarhus Convention - access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters - are universal environmental rights which are essential elements of sustainable development. Their relevance to a wide range of global concerns, such as climate change, water management, greening the economy, health and the eradication of poverty was at the center of the debates of the Aarhus week in Geneva (20–24 June 2016).

Delegates from a number of countries and international, regional and non-governmental organizations discussed good practices, remaining challenges and the future priorities with regard to the three pillars of the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention).

In a thematic session, participants considered how to advance the application of the Aarhus principles in international forums dealing with environmental matters, in particular in relation to the SDGs, UNFCCC, and the international financial institutions (IFIs).

Participants met in the context of the twentieth meeting of the Working Group of the Parties and the ninth meeting of the Task Force on Access to Justice under the Aarhus Convention.

 

SDGs

Due to its cross-cutting nature, the Convention can play an important role in implementing the SDGs. Delegations unanimously agreed that this issue should be discussed at the high-level segment of the Convention’s next session of the Meeting of the Parties, to be held in Montenegro in 2017.

 

Reaching out to other regions

Delegations welcomed the expression of interest by Guinea-Bissau in acceding to the Convention. Parties to the Convention include countries all along the economic spectrum, from some of the world’s wealthiest economies to countries with some of the world’s lowest GDPs. The Convention is open for accession by any United Nations Member State.

The progress made in the development of a regional instrument in Latin America and the Caribbean on the application of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development — the keystone of the Aarhus Convention —was well received, with delegations reiterating their full support for the establishment of a legally binding instrument in that region. UNECE has been providing ongoing advisory support to its sister organization, ECLAC, to further that process.

Other issues included lack of public participation in the context of the Silk Road Economic Belt, which is becoming a driver for development in the pan-European region. Aarhus Parties and intergovernmental bodies were called to promote their experiences and instruments to the New Silk Road initiative to help establish a successful, continent-wide model of environmental governance.

 

International decision-making 

Greater openness and transparency in international negotiations on environmental matters, with opportunities for the public to be heard on the issues on the table, is the key to quality outcomes and their wide acceptance. The Working Group held a thematic session on advancing the application of the Aarhus principles in international forums dealing with environmental matters. 

Taking stock of progress in public participation in forums dealing with SDGs, delegations noted that these forums should be in a participatory and inclusive multi-stakeholder format, and that stakeholders should be able to organize themselves, for example with regard to selection of speakers for a given topic. Considering the UNEA processes, participants reiterated that more efforts should be made for ensuring a proper alignment of the draft UNEP stakeholder engagement policy to the Convention’s principles. The main focus of the session, however, was on climate change-related decision-making and on international financial institutions (IFIs). 

 

Climate change

France, the host of the COP 21, was widely praised for a number of innovative measures the French Government had taken to apply the Aarhus principles in practice in the organization of the session. In Paris, public participation in the UNFCCC process had been brought to a new level by using existing and innovative tools to facilitate multi-stakeholder dialogues and forums in the lead-up to COP 21, and by dedicating space for the stakeholders next to the formal COP 21 venue. A delegate of France reiterated the Government’s willingness to share its knowledge and experience with future hosts. NGOs, recognizing the unprecedented efforts made by France, nevertheless highlighted the exclusion of observers from several negotiating sessions as a key challenge during the negotiations. They also stressed the vital need for furthering transparency and effective public participation in all processes established under the Paris Agreement. Strengthening cooperation between Aarhus and UNFCCC focal points, NGOs, business, academia and other stakeholders at the country level was recognized as a key measure to be implemented on the ground. 

 

International Financial institutions

Turning to IFIs, the meeting provided an opportunity to take stock of recent developments in relation to the activities of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank aimed at promoting public participation and public access to information in the policies and projects of those institutions. The World Bank also contributed by sending a video message. The pivotal role of public engagement in strategic environmental assessments was noted as an instrument to prevent possible conflicts and barriers to the implementation of future projects financed by such institutions. 

 

Justice in environmental matters 

Effective access to justice, a human right, is also enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular in SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions. 

Public authorities are often vested with broad discretional decision-making powers in various sectors (energy, mining, spatial planning, transport, hunting, nature conservation, climate-change), balancing different economic, social, environmental and other interests. Some decisions that might have significant effects on the environment and affect individuals and communities in a negative way should be subject to effective judicial or administrative review. In a discussion, the Task Force on Access to Justice looked specifically at a critical role that such review plays in protecting public rights and interests, preventing irreversible environmental damage, enforcing environmental rule of law and contributing to sustainable development.