The Aarhus Convention series: part one

META’s Q&As series about the Aarhus Convention, aims to explain the role of the Convention in strengthening the contribution that both individuals and civil society can make to the green transformation of the European Union (EU) – and beyond.

This series builds up to the Meeting of the Parties (MOP) to the Aarhus Convention, scheduled for 18-20 October 2021, when the rules in place in the EU will be assessed against its obligations under the Convention.

Although the EU has a specific regulation – the Aarhus Regulation – which applies the Aarhus Convention to EU institutions, in 2017 the EU was found to be in non-compliance with the Convention by hindering public access to EU-level environmental justice.

Part one will guide you through the Aarhus Convention and why it is important, with each issue giving an introduction into the topics that will be discussed and decided in October in Geneva at the Meeting of the Parties of the Aarhus Convention.

What is The Aarhus Convention?

The Aarhus Convention is an international agreement that gives people the right to access information about the environment. It also promotes public participation in decision-making and in the preparation of environment-related policies. It provides access to justice on environmental matters, for individuals and NGOs.

When was it adopted and by whom?

The Convention was adopted on 25 June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus, and it entered into force on 30 October 2001. It has 47 parties, 46 states and the European Union. All ratifying states are in Europe and Central Asia.

What is the Aarhus Regulation?

The Aarhus Regulation is the EU law that implements the EU obligations under the Convention to its institutions. It is supposed to realize certain rights to individuals and NGOs granted by the Aarhus Convention.

When did the EU become a Party to the AC?

The EU became a Party to the Aarhus Convention in 2005.

Why do environmental NGOs have the right to public scrutiny?

In a system based on the rule of law and accountability, the executive powers are subject to forms of scrutiny and control to ensure that these powers are used in line with the laws.

Environmental NGOs are ‘vehicles’ through which civil society, and the public opinion at large, have the opportunity to engage in shaping EU environmental policies, that are of wide societal interest. Participatory rights are essential for sustainable development, which is supposed to balance social, economic, and environmental interests. Because the environment cannot represent itself in decision-making, environmental NGOs play a crucial role in giving a voice to nature.

The Aarhus Convention is special in this regard, as it explicitly recognises environmental NGOs as a necessary coalition partner in guaranteeing participatory rights.

What is the issue with the Aarhus Regulation?

More than 14 years since the EU became a party to the Aarhus Convention, NGOs are still not given adequate access to justice before the Court of Justice of the EU. In 2017, the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (an independent UN compliance review body) found the EU to be in non-compliance with the Convention as a result of this accountability deficit. One year ago, the legislative process to revise the Regulation began to allow more EU decisions to be challenged by the public.

What next?

A new Aarhus Regulation will soon be in place. At the Aarhus MoP in October this year, all the Parties to the Convention are supposed to endorse the findings by the Compliance Committee cases, including the one against the EU from 2017. But in 2017, the EU refused to endorse the case against itself, and this was the first time ever a party to the Convention did this. The question is now, what will the EU do this year?

Read our next issue to find out more about the lead-up to this Aarhus Convention MoP and what is at stake.