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Feature: Environmental Justice, did you know: you have the right to know?

The Aarhus Convention is crucial to ensure environmental rights are respected. But how many people actually know anything about it? In this article, META dissects the convention so its use and value become clearer.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (also called the ‘Aarhus Convention’) was adopted on 25 June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus (Århus). It entered into force on 30 October 2001.

The Aarhus convention is an international multilateral environmental agreement, or to put it more simply, a deal between countries about environmental rights.

Countries, or groups of countries like the EU, can ratify the convention and then have to apply it in their national legislation.

The three pillars

The Aarhus convention is based on three pillars that are the foundation of environmental rights for citizens and NGOs and good governance: access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters.

Access to information

Access to information is the ability for citizens or NGOs to request and get information on environmental matters. People can be informed about the environment through publications, by consulting databases, platforms or websites, or by formally making a request to access documents to authorities.

Example: In March 2018, META investigated the European coal lobby group Euracoal’s list of members. Euracoal describes itself as “the voice of coal in Europe”. We sent freedom of information requests to various bodies, including the University of Nottingham and the French government’s ‘Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières’. Our investigation led to the withdrawal of all the organisations we mentioned from Euracoal website.

The EEB’s report Burning: The Evidence investigated how EU member states make information about industrial facilities available online. The EEB will publish another report on the importance of access to information by the end of September this year.

Public participation

This pillar establishes the principle that the public must be involved in the decision-making on environmental matters, for example through public consultations or surveys.

Example: A plan to expand Heathrow airport and to construct a third runway was proposed in 2015. As part of the impact assessment, a 10-week consultation was conducted. This is an essential part of the study, ensuring transparency and giving citizens and environmental groups the chance to object!

The EEB will publish a report on the role of NGOs in public participation next month.

Access to justice

Access to justice is the right of citizens and NGOs to challenge decisions in court. It is crucial that every legal system enables citizens and NGOs to contest decisions that affect the environment before courts and tribunals. This needs to be ensured at all levels of governance: at local or regional level, national level and EU level.

Example: Over the past years Diesel bans have been issued in several cities in Germany, following successful litigation by citizens’ groups.

Check out EEB’s report on access to justice.

Which countries have ratified the convention so far?

Forty-six states and the European Union have signed the Aarhus convention.

How is the Aarhus convention applied in the EU?

As both the EU and all EU Member States have signed, the Convention applies both to each individual country as well as to the EU itself.

For the EU, the institutions (European Commission, European Parliament, European Council etc) are bound by the convention through the so-called Aarhus Regulation.

However, in 2017, the Compliance Committee of the Aarhus Convention ruled that the Aarhus regulation of the EU does not give people and NGOs enough rights to challenge decisions by EU institutions that affect the environment.

Two of the main problems that were highlighted by the committee are:

  • Individual scope
    To challenge a decision, NGOs and individuals need to prove that the decision affects them personally. This requirement mean that claims made only in the interest of the environment cannot be made.
  • The definition by the court of an administrative act
    Under the Aarhus convention it is possible to challenge decisions, such as administrative acts. However, in the application of the convention at the EU level, challenging an administrative act is only possible if the administrative act was created under environmental law. This excludes other administrative acts that could also have negative impacts on the environment, such as acts relating to trade, tourism or agriculture.

Right now, a study is being carried out by the European Commission to address this problem. As part of this study, a consultation is taking place which closes on 14 March. NGOs, including the EEB, are submitting their comments.

From 28 February to 1 March 2019, the UNECE held the ‘Twelfth meeting of the Task Force on Access to Justice under the Aarhus Convention’. This year’s meeting focused on ‘Access to justice in cases relating to air quality’.