In order to protect the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and wellbeing, it is necessary to guarantee the individual right of public participation in decision-making affecting their environmental situation.
Public participation contributes to the endeavours of public authorities to protect the environment. Environmental policy and decision-making should not be restricted to the concerns of authorities alone. In order to promote effective public participation the public need to be aware of the means and methods of participation in environmental decision-making processes, and in the solving of environmental problems.
Public participation can be a source of additional information and scientific and technical knowledge to the decision-makers.
Public participation should not be seen as purely a matter of fulfilling certain procedural formalities. As far as possible, the content of decisions should also reflect the public input, and especially the input from members of the public whose rights or interests are particularly affected by the decision-making process under consideration.
The promotion of public participation in environmental matters requires the transparency and the accountability of public authorities, thus improving their credibility and strengthening support for their activities.
Participation of the public and NGOs in decision-making by public bodies on environment matters is desirable because it tends both to improve the quality of the resulting decisions and to increase the level of public support for the outcome. Less tangibly but of no less importance, a society in which people feel that their voices can be heard and can make a difference might be expected to have a higher morale than one in which people feel powerless to influence the conditions in which they live and work. This morale factor has numerous and far-reaching implications which, even if hard to quantify, should not be ignored.
Policy-makers rely heavily on legislation, technology and fiscal instruments to instigate remedial measures. Much attention is focused on taxes and fiscal incentives to encourage change. Innovative technologies are being advocated to reduce end-of-pipe emissions and solid-waste disposal. In addition, laws and regulations have been enacted and standards set in many European countries. Nevertheless, despite good intentions, a growing body of evidence indicates that, unless these means and measures are complemented by others based on public education, communication and citizen participation, they do not achieve the stated policy goals and objectives.
The 1998 Arhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters spells out the public authorities duties towards the public at large and covers such areas as water, air, soil, chemicals, human health, land-use planning, genetically modified organisms, etc. Its provisions lay down specific requirements in terms of openness and transparency, so setting an example for strengthening democracy throughout the UN/ECE region and beyond.
As stated in principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, "environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level". Public participation is important at all levels of environmental policy-making: setting objectives, selecting instruments, implementation and monitoring. However, in order to achieve sustainable development, public participation also requires the willingness of citizens and their ability to take responsibilities.
The Ã…rhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998) sets out a broad legal framework for such participation, establishing minimum requirements for public participation in decisions on specific activities (Article 6), on plans, programmes and policies (Article 7) and on general rules and regulations (Article 8) relating to the environment.
For public participation to be effective, certain fundamental practices must be adhered to. These are: (1) the provision of clear, timely, relevant, objective and accurate information; (2) an indication of the areas requiring decisions and relevant policies, legislation and agreements; (3) adequate notice and time for public review; (4) the careful consideration of public input; (5) feedback on the nature of comments received; and (6) respect for all interested publics.
The precise conditions of participation are all-important in achieving genuine public involvement and avoiding tokenism. The main requirements for effective participation include: (a) opportunities for early and ongoing involvement of the public in the decision-making process; (b) adequate and timely notification of the concerned public; (c) public access to information relevant to the decision-making process, with active dissemination of certain key information to the concerned public; (d) due account taken of the public input; (e) reasoned decisions addressing all substantive arguments raised in the participation process; (f) transparency in the decision-making process, including a public record of all submissions made to or meetings held with decision-makers; (g) training of officials in ways of supporting public participation; (h) a supportive infrastructure for involvement of the public and NGOs, including measures to overcome financial obstacles to participation; and (i), long-term capacity-building to strengthen NGOs.
Launching the new UK Guidance on Enhancing Public Participation in Local Government (October 1998), the Local Government Minister challenged councils to make use of the guidance in three broad areas:
It is up to environmental groups to learn what conventions and protocols such as those signed in Ã…rhus (Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998)) mean to their operations and to use that information in their arguments against governments and institutions.