The Aarhus Convention – a consultation tool for the digital age?
Hailed by Kofi Annan as ‘the most ambitious venture in environmental democracy undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations’, the Aarhus Convention (otherwise known as the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters), has proven to be much more than mere ambition.
The Aarhus Compliance Mechanism is currently dealing with 47 pending cases and the Aarhus Clearinghouse is a rich source of useful material. Although the UK is a bit of a laggard and has yet to submit its 2017 National Implementation Report, the Convention is actively supported by governments, and is a source of inspiration for public activism, including youth activism, notably in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
In June, I represented the Consultation Institute as an observer at an Aarhus Working Group meeting. A dominant topic of discussion was the use of digital technologies. Young people appear to be benefiting most from new digital technologies. An example is the youth movement Move Green in Kyrgyzstan, which has enabled young people to use digital technology and social media to report on city air pollution and influence government policy. However, older people and some rural residents may be left out in the digital age.
A further challenge is ensuring that digital technologies are used by the public. Online portals are being created by government departments, including in Central Asian countries where such technologies and general public openness are relatively new developments. However, many people still fail to use these online portals. Often the information is presented in such a way that it is difficult to understand why it is relevant, or there is too much information without any explanation of technical terminology or context.
Countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia are also developing new legislation on environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA), and seeking guidance on how to develop official guidelines for public participation in that context. There are huge opportunities for sharing international good practice through the Aarhus networks.
A new area to focus on – and one that is increasingly significant in the field of public consultation – is the generation of information by the public themselves, known as co-production or citizen science. This might include a greater focus on mapping, with use of GPS, GIS and remote sensing technology. Aarhus signatories can promote citizen science, and should seek to ensure that information produced by the public is acknowledged and used appropriately in decision-making processes.
So the Aarhus Convention has great potential and it already has momentum internationally, including among young people. It also has influence beyond its own geographical boundaries. A new ‘Aarhus Convention’ for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Escazu Convention, was adopted in March 2018.
Citizens of the UK would do well to explore the opportunities that Aarhus provides here at home. Compared to some other countries, it seems as though we are missing opportunities to increase public influence over decision-making, particularly in regard to the environmental impacts of planning and infrastructure development.
Article written by Institute Associate Emma Wilson