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Environment

The Aarhus Convention and the EU

Find out how you can participate in EU decision-making on environmental issues under the Aarhus Convention.

Overview

The EU and its 27 Member States are all Parties to the Aarhus Convention – the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters. It is the leading international agreement on environmental democracy. The Aarhus Convention protects every person’s right to live in a healthy environment. It guarantees the public three key rights on environmental issues.

Access to information refers to the public’s right to receive environmental information held by public authorities. This includes information on

  • the state of the environment
  • policies or measures affecting the environment
  • public health and safety where these are affected by the state of the environment

Public participation refers to the public’s right to participate in environmental decision-making. Public authorities are required to allow the general public and environmental NGOs to meaningfully participate in decision-making regarding projects affecting the environment and plans and programmes relating to the environment.

Access to justice refers to the public’s right to review by a court or another independent body to ensure that public authorities respect the rights to access to information and public participation, and environmental law in general.

Objectives

The Aarhus Convention is at the heart of ensuring environmental democracy, by

  • laying down a set of basic procedural rights for the public
  • imposing obligations on public authorities to make these rights effective
  • increasing transparency
  • making governments more accountable to the people

Law

The Aarhus Convention and EU Member States

Access to information 

The Access to Environmental Information Directive (2003/4/EC) aims to ensure that environmental information is systematically made available by the authorities to the public either actively or upon request.  

For further information on the reporting and guidance documents related to this Directive, see

Public participation  

The Public Participation Directive 2003/35/EC provides for public participation with respect to formulating certain plans and programmes relating to the environment. 

Provisions for public participation in environmental decision-making are also found in a number of environmental directives, such as the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive 85/337/EEC and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive 2001/42/EC.

Access to justice 

Both Directive 2003/4/EC on public access to environmental information and Directive 2003/35/EC on public participation include access to justice provisions.

While there is no directive specifically dedicated to access to justice in EU Member States which would apply horizontally in all sectors, the Court of Justice has developed extensive jurisprudence on the subject. In addition, there is a growing number of access to justice provisions in new and revised EU law. An example is the Seveso III Directive (2012/18/EU), which provides for access to justice in cases of acts and omissions in the context of prevention of major accidents involving dangerous substances.

The Aarhus Convention and EU Institutions

The “Aarhus Regulation” (Regulation (EC) N° 1367/2006 as amended by Regulation (EC) 2021/1767)  contributes to the implementation of the Aarhus Convention to the EU’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies.  

Access to information

The Aarhus Regulation extended Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council regarding public access of environmental information to all EU institutions and bodies. For more information on access to information and how to submit documents  and/or requests to the Commission, see Freedom of information

Public participation 

The Aarhus Regulation requires EU institutions and bodies to provide for public participation in preparing, modifying or reviewing plans and programmes relating to the environment.   

Access to justice 

Under the Aarhus Regulation, environmental NGOs and other members of the public that meet certain criteria can request an internal review  of acts adopted, or omissions, by EU institutions and bodies, where these violate EU environmental law. The basic rationale is to ensure accountability and make sure that any EU administrative decisions comply with EU environmental law. If they do not, NGOs or other members of the public can submit a request for review. In addition, if they are not satisfied with the results of the review decision, they can challenge the decision before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

2021 amendment to the Aarhus Regulation 

On 6 October 2021, the EU adopted Regulation (EU) 2021/1767 that amended Regulation 1367/2006 to allow for better public scrutiny of EU acts affecting the environment by NGOs and other members of the public. The 2021 revision significantly increased the range of decisions that may be subject to internal review under the Regulation.

Requests for internal review

NGOs may submit requests for internal review relating to administrative acts adopted by EU institutions and bodies that violate EU environmental law. From 29 April 2023, individuals and other organisations, subject to certain criteria, will also be able to submit requests.

The objective is to ensure accountability and make sure that any EU administrative decisions comply with EU environmental law. If they do not, NGOs or other members of the public can submit a request for review. In addition, if they are not satisfied with the results of the review decision, they can challenge the decision before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Find out more about the internal review process.

The EU’s compliance with the Aarhus Convention

The EU is committed to fully complying with the Aarhus Convention.

Aarhus Expert Group

The Commission’s expert group on Aarhus implementation discusses issues related to the Aarhus Convention. It is made up of experts from EU Member States and the Commission.

Studies and publications

Contact

For questions about EU environmental policy, please contact Europe Direct.

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