In order to increase awareness of environmental problems and promote effective public participation, access to environmental information must be guaranteed. Increased public awareness is required in order to promote greater public understanding and support for environmental policies and enforcement.
Citizen involvement can help to build constituencies for change. Most environmental reforms will be opposed by those who have benefited from the right to pollute and degrade without penalty. Following through on environmental reform therefore requires a public constituency for change to act as a counterweight.
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 access to information affecting their environmental situation.
Environmental information means any information on the state of water, air, soil, fauna, flora, land and natural sites, and on activities or measures adversely affecting or likely to affect these, and on activities or measures designed to protect these, including administrative measures and environmental management programmes. It includes information on the state of the elements of environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites, biological diversity and its components, including genetically modified organisms, and the interactions among these elements. It includes factors such as substances, energy, noise and radiation, and activities or measures, including administrative measures, environmental agreements, policies, legislation, plans and programmes, affecting or likely to affect the elements of the environment, and cost-benefit and other economic analyses and assumptions used in environmental decision-making. Environmental information further includes the state of human health and safety, conditions of human life, cultural sites and built structures, inasmuch as they are or may be affected by the state of the elements of the environment or, through these elements, by the factors in the environment.
Developed countries and relevant international organizations should cooperate, in particular with developing countries, to expand their capacity to receive, store and retrieve, contribute, disseminate, use and provide appropriate public access to relevant environmental and developmental information, by providing technology and training to establish local information services and by supporting partnership and cooperative arrangements between countries and on the regional or subregional level.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities.
Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states, "environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided."
The Ã…rhus Declaration (1998) 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.
The Brazilian law Access to Environmental Information was approved in 2003. It was based on the Agenda 21 and Rio Declaration Principles, as well as in the Aarhus Convention.
EU Directive 90/313/EEC on the Freedom of access to environmental information is one of the most important instruments of EU environmental policy. Citizens and environmental organizations in the EU member states and elsewhere in Europe look to the Directive as a key instrument in delivering their right to know. The Directive came into effect at the beginning of 1993. The first several years of experience with the Directive is now being reviewed by the European Commission.
The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), representing business investors, financial institutions and corporations promotes 10 principles of environmental management to its corporate members. The eighth principle states: "We will inform in a timely manner everyone who may be affected by conditions caused by our company that might endanger health, safety or the environment. We will regularly seek advice and counsel through dialogue with persons in communities near our facilities. We will not take any action against employees for reporting dangerous incidents or conditions to management or to appropriate authorities."
Article 14(1) of the Convention on Civil Liability for Damage Resulting from Activities Dangerous to the Environment (Lugano 1993), requires that: "Any person shall, at his request and without his having to prove an interest, have access to information relating to the environment held by public authorities." Article 15 continues: "On the same terms and conditions as those set out in Article 14 any person shall have access to information relating to the environment held by bodies with public responsibilities for the environment and under the control of a public authority. Access shall be given via the competent public administration or directly by the bodies themselves."
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in cooperation with the Irish Department of Environment and Local Government, convened the Global Conference on Facilitating Access to Environmental Information in 2000.
Using electronic communication technologies can give the public easy, cheap, direct access to information the authorities hold. It can facilitate the introduction of Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers, an instrument that has proven extremely useful in the USA. Using electronic means, in a sophisticated manner, is the answer to those countries that fear that they cannot provide the necessary manpower to respond to the needs of the public for information and participation in more bureaucratic manners.
Many public authorities lack the willingness to respond to public enquiries; they use narrow definitions of environmental information; broad categories of information are exempt from disclosure; time limits for providing information are not respected, and excessive charges, especially in western countries, are used to discourage the public.