Increasing public participation in environmental policy discussions

Increasing public participation in environmental assessment discussions
Increasing public participation in environmental policy and assessment discussions
The value of public participation in decision-making by public bodies has gained increasing political recognition in recent years. At global level, Agenda 21 highlighted the need to involve the whole of society in the process of moving towards sustainable development, and the Rio Declaration stressed the need for information, public participation and access to justice in tackling environmental issues.
It is increasingly recognized that governments working in isolation from the rest of society cannot solve the major environmental and health problems of our time. The transition towards environmentally sound, health-enhancing and sustainable development requires not only tough action by governments but also a reorientation of behaviour throughout society. Changes in personal lifestyle are needed as well as changes at all levels of political and corporate decision-making. Only with the active engagement and support of civil society can this transition be effected. This requires a new, more participatory kind of democracy: both to encourage greater involvement of the public in bringing about the necessary changes, and to increase the transparency and accountability of the institutions of government and industry. Access to information, participation in decision-making and the right to challenge decisions through the courts are integral elements in that process.

With most types of public decision-making, the aim of public participation is to ensure that the public are fully consulted and that their views are genuinely taken into account. The actual decisions are generally taken by officials acting under the authority of an elected government. In some cases, however, for example where referenda or the right of legislative initiative are used, the public or NGOs are actually the decision-makers or co-decision-makers. The successful use of these instruments of "direct democracy" in a small number of countries not only provides interesting models for other countries to follow; it also suggests that involving the public in decision-making need not be limited to building public consultation into an existing decision-making process. It can mean looking at the decision-making structures themselves and developing new structures (e.g. multiple-choice "preferenda") which empower the public.

Computers open up new possibilities for public involvement in decision-making. Just as the use of computer technology has transformed the way information is handled, so it could eventually have a similar impact on decision-making processes themselves.

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. Agenda 21 recommends that countries should should encourage public participation in discussions of environmental policy and assessment.

The adoption in 1998 of the [ECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters] (1988) has undoubtedly been the most significant international development in this area. This new law, adopted in the Danish city of Ã…rhus at the Fourth Ministerial Conference [Environment for Europe] will provide the main legal framework for strengthening citizens' environmental rights in the region covered by ECE for the foreseeable future. To date, 39 countries and the European Community have signed the Convention.
Type Classification:
E: Emanations of other strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions