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.
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
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
- Guidance document for Member States’ reporting under Article 9
- Reports from the Member States under Article 9
- Evaluation report from the Commission COM(2012)774
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.
In 2017 the Commission published a Notice (C 275/2017) on access to justice in environmental matters. It consists of a guidance document that clarifies how individuals and their associations can challenge decisions, acts and omissions by public authorities based on the Aarhus Convention, provisions of EU law, including the relevant rulings of the Court of Justice of the EU. The scope is limited to access to justice in relation to decisions, acts and omissions by public authorities of EU Member States.
Several updates have been made to this notice
- Update 1– Judgments delivered by the EU Court of Justice since the adoption of Commission Notice
- Update 2 covering the period between 16 April 2018 and 10 March 2019
- Update 3 covering the period between 11 March 2019 and 31 December 2019
- Update 4 covering the period between 28 May 2020 and 14 January 2021
Priority areas for improving access to justice in EU Member States
A 2020 Communication on improving access to justice in environmental matters called on Member States to step up implementation and drew up four priority action areas
- full transposition of EU secondary law on access to justice (mainly those under the Environmental Impacts Assessments, Environmental Liability and Industrial Emissions Directives)
- calling on co-legislators to support access to justice rules to be included in sectoral EU proposals
- removing obstacles from national law, in line with case-law of the Court of Justice of the EU
- calling on national judges to a improve access to justice
The Commission committed to support these priorities by improving monitoring, training and taking enforcement action as Guardian of the Treaties.
Access to justice on the ground – the situation in EU Member States
In 2021, the EU published the eJustice fact sheets on access to justice in environmental matters informing the public of the applicable rules in each Member State.
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.
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.
Prior to the revision, NGOs were only able to challenge individual decisions, for example a GMO authorisation addressed to a single company. However, general decisions applicable to all firms could not be challenged. Now, NGOs can also challenge general decisions.
In addition, decisions are opened up for review under any policy area, be it environment, transport, energy or health, such as major energy or transport infrastructure projects. Taxonomy-related delegated acts, fisheries quotas, and pesticides authorization are recent examples where NGOs took advantage of the new possibilities for review.
From 29 April 2023, individuals and other organisations, subject to certain criteria, will also be able to submit requests.
The expansion is a true game-changer: it means sweeping changes in the current system and new opportunities for NGOs and other member of the public to hold EU institutions accountable.
The amendment entered into force on 28 October 2021, with the exception of Article 1, point (3)(a), giving right to individuals and other organisation beyond environmental NGOs, which shall apply from 29 April 2023. For background and further information on the 2021 review of the Aarhus Regulation, please see
- Proposal for a regulation on amending Aarhus Regulation
- Final study and summary report
- 2019 Commission Staff Working Document SWD(2019) 378
- Council Decision (EU) 2018/881 requesting a study on how to address the Aarhus Convention as regards compliance case findings
- Results of the public consultation
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.
The EU’s compliance with the Aarhus Convention
The EU is committed to fully complying with the Aarhus Convention.
Every four years, the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention adopts a series of decisions following findings and recommendations by the Convention’s Compliance Committee. This concerns Parties who have ongoing compliance issues that have not yet been addressed to the full satisfaction of the Meeting of the Parties.
In July 2022, the Commission submitted an action plan to the Convention’s Compliance Committee outlining existing and future steps to ensure full compliance with the Convention with respect to three outstanding compliance cases: Industrial Emissions Directive, National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) and projects of common interest (PCI).
A separate action plan has also been prepared for case ACCC/C/2015/128 on state aid.
The EU’s implementation reports under the Aarhus Convention
The EU also collects and publishes data and reports on how well the Aarhus Convention is being implemented. All 5 EU Implementation reports are available online.
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.
- How to access information from the Institutions?
- Transparency | European Commission (europa.eu)
- Transparency and access to information (eib.org)
- How to submit an internal review request under the Aarhus Regulation?
- Environmental Implementation Review (EIR)
- European Environment Agency (EEA)
- INSPIRE geoportal
- The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR)
Studies and publications
- Summary of the Aarhus Regulation
- Citizen’s guide to access to justice in environmental matters summarising the guidance document on how individuals and their associations can challenge decisions, acts and omissions by public authorities related to EU environmental law before national courts
- Factsheet on access to justice in environmental matters
- eJustice factsheets on access to justice in environmental matters informing the public of the applicable rules in each Member State
- LIFE funding for civil society in particular on public participation and access to justice projects
- Study and summary report on EU implementation of the Aarhus Convention in the area of access to justice in environmental matters (2019)
- Further studies on Member States’ implementation of the EU acquis relating to the Aarhus Convention are available here.
- Climate law – statement on access to justice
- Revised new Guidelines on State aid for climate, environmental protection and energy including Aarhus references.
Main laws:Aarhus Convention (2005/370/EC), Access to Environmental Information Directive (2003/4/EC), Public Participation Directive 2003/35/EC, Aarhus Regulation (Regulation (EC) N° 1367/2006) as amended by Regulation (EC) 2021/1767
Related topics:Environmental impact assessments, Environmental crime, Environmental liability, Protecting journalists and human rights defenders in strategic lawsuits against public participation Industrial emissions, Industrial accidents, Water, Nature and biodiversity, Waste and recycling,, INSPIRE, Green Data4All initiative
Related Commission priorities: European Green Deal
For questions about EU environmental policy, please contact Europe Direct.