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 provides access to justice on environmental matters.
What are the key elements of the Aarhus Convention?
The convention gives you the following 3 rights:
1. You can access environmental information
Anybody can request information about the environment that is held by, or for, a public organisation. You must get this information within one month of your request and do not have to say why you need it.
This includes information about:
- The state of the environment
- Human health issues
- Policies and measures taken by the public organisation
Find out more about Access to environmental information.
2. You can take part in environmental decision-making
Members of the public can take part in making decisions where there may be an environmental impact. This includes decisions about:
- Environmental licences
- Foreshore licences
- Waste licences
- Integrated Pollution Prevention Control (IPPC) licences
The public authorities that make these decisions must publish notices telling the public how they can give feedback. The public authorities must then consider this feedback when making decisions.
3. You can access justice
Members of the public and environmental non-governmental organisations can ask for a review of decisions from the public authority which may affect the environment. The review procedures must provide “adequate and effective remedies ... and be fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive”.
Normally, when the law allows for an administrative appeal against a planning or environmental decision, the appeal should be made first to the public authority. After you complete the standard appeal process, you can apply to the High Court for a judicial review of a decision.
For example, if you want to appeal a planning decision made by a local authority, you would normally appeal to An Bord Pleanála first.
How is the Aarhus Convention implemented?
There are 2 EU directives that implement the Convention:
- Directive 2003/4/EC on Public Access to Environmental Information (pdf)
- Directive 2003/35/EC on Public Participation
Both directives have been fully implemented in Ireland which means they fully apply.
Additional measures were included in the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 to implement parts of the Convention. This Act introduced new rules about the costs that apply in certain cases where environmental information has been requested. The Act also states that a judge must take notice of the Convention in relevant cases.
Aarhus Compliance Committee
The Convention established a Compliance Committee to review compliance and decide on possible breaches of the Convention. Since the committee was set up, it has made a number of findings in relation to compliance by individual members of the Convention.
What other agreements relate to the Aarhus Convention?
Since the Convention was ratified, there have been 2 further agreements that relate to the Convention:
Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers
The Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers commits participating countries to establishing and maintaining publicly accessible registers with information on pollutants from certain environmentally significant activities, such as mining and the disposal of waste.
A Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) is a national or regional environmental database. It lists all the potentially hazardous chemical substances and pollutants released into the air, water and soil, and transferred for treatment or disposal.
In Ireland the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) manages Ireland’s PRTR. It 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 emissions in their locality.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Amendment to the Convention
The GMO Amendment to the Convention means that there must be public participation in decisions about the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These requirements are more specific than the general requirements relating to public participation which apply to other issues covered by the Aarhus Convention.
‘Deliberate release’ means placing genetically modified (GM) products on the market, or the cultivation of GM crops. It does not include the use of GMOs in controlled settings, such as laboratories.
The GMO Amendment was implemented in the EU by Directive 2001/18/EC on the Deliberate Release of GMOs. This directive became law in Ireland through the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2003 (SI 500 of 2003).