Aarhus Convention and related agreements

Introduction

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 (commonly referred to as the Aarhus Convention) was adopted on 25 June 1998. Ireland ratified the Convention on 20 June 2012. See environ.ie for more about the Aarhus Convention.

Ireland has also ratified 2 related agreements – the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers and the GMO Amendment to the Aarhus Convention, both described below. The Convention and these 2 related agreements entered into force on 18 September 2012.

Provisions of Aarhus Convention

The Aarhus Convention lays down a set of basic rules to promote public involvement in environmental matters. The Convention has 3 pillars:

  1. Access to environmental information: This includes information on the state of the environment and/or on human health issues as well as information on policies and measures taken. Read more in our document on Access to environmental information.

  2. Public participation in environmental decision making: Members of the public have a right to participate in a range of decisions where there may be an environmental impact. These include planning matters and other environmental licensing decisions, such as foreshore licences, waste licences and Integrated Pollution Prevention Control licences. Public authorities responsible for decision making on such licences are obliged to publish notices on specific licence applications, which must inform the public on how they may participate. Comments submitted by the public are to be taken into consideration in the decision-making process.

  3. Access to justice in environmental matters: Members of the public and environmental non-governmental organisations have the right to seek a review of decisions that have been made which may affect the environment. The review procedures must provide “adequate and effective remedies ... and be fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive”.

    Normally, where legislation provides for an administrative appeal against a planning or environmental decision, this appeal mechanism should be used first before applying for judicial review of a decision. For example, a planning decision would normally be appealed in the first instance to An Bord Pleanála.

    In Ireland, the requirement to provide a mechanism to challenge the substantive and procedural legality of a decision of a public body is ultimately met by way of judicial review. See courts.ie for information on the court fees payable.

EU Directives and national legislation

The European Union has introduced 2 Directives to implement the Aarhus Convention:

  1. Directive 2003/4/EC on Public Access to Environmental Information (pdf)
  2. Directive 2003/35/EC on Public Participation in respect of the drawing up of certain plans and programmes relating to the environment

Both Directives have been fully implemented in Ireland.

As well as legislation transposing these Directives, additional measures were included in the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 to implement parts of the Convention. This Act introduced new rules about costs to apply in certain cases, as well as a requirement that judicial notice be taken of the Convention.

In total, over 60 pieces of legislation have been used to implement the Aarhus Convention in Ireland.

Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers

A Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) is a national or regional environmental database or inventory of potentially hazardous chemical substances and/or pollutants released to air, water and soil, and transferred off-site for treatment or disposal. The main objective of the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (pdf) is to enhance public access to information through the establishment of coherent, integrated PRTRs, in order to facilitate public participation in environmental decision making and contribute to the prevention and reduction of environmental pollution.

Ireland signed the Protocol on PRTRs in 2003. This Protocol is an international instrument committing the participating countries to establish and maintain publicly accessible registers that contain information on a wide range of pollutants from certain environmentally significant activities.

Legislative and other measures have been put in place to ensure that Ireland’s obligations under the Protocol are fulfilled. The key objective of the Protocol is the establishment of a national PRTR to meet specific requirements under the Protocol.

The Pollutant Release and Transfer Register Regulations 2011 (SI 649 of 2011) designate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the Competent Authority for the purposes of the PRTR Protocol. In October 2011, the EPA established Ireland's PRTR, which contains information about emissions from more than 300 industrial facilities across the State and enables members of the public to find out about the major sources of polluting emissions in their immediate environs.

GMO Amendment to the Aarhus Convention

The Genetically Modified Organisms Amendment to the Aarhus Convention (pdf) was adopted in 2005. It puts in place requirements for public participation in decisions concerning the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These requirements are more specific than the general requirements concerning public participation which apply to other issues covered by the Aarhus Convention.

‘Deliberate Release’ refers to the placing on the market of genetically modified (GM) products or the cultivation of GM crops. It does not include the use of GMOs in controlled settings, such as laboratories. Find further information on GMOs on the websites of the Department of Communication, Climate Action and the Environment and the EPA.

The GMO Amendment has been implemented in the EU by Directive 2001/18/EC on the Deliberate Release of GMOs.

This Directive has been transposed in Ireland by the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2003 (SI 500 of 2003).

Aarhus Compliance Committee

Article 15 of the Aarhus Convention established arrangements for reviewing compliance with the Convention. For that purpose a Compliance Committee has been established to discuss and decide on possible breaches of the Convention. Ireland has been subject to the compliance mechanism since 18 September 2013, one year after the date the agreement came into effect. Find more information about the Committee and its work.

Page edited: 16 July 2015