Supporting Environmental Democracy and the Aarhus Convention
Oct. 6, 2020, 12:21 p.m.
By Muki Haklay, Lea Shanley, Anna Berti Suman, Sven Schade, Dorte Riemenschneider, Nora Salas Seoane, Rosa Arias, and Simone Reufenacht
This year the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) issued a call for consultation on “Recommendations on electronic information tools,” which is part of the Aarhus Convention process. The Aarhus Convention establishes a set of rights for public access to environmental information, participation in decision making, and access to justice. In the revised recommendations that updates the 2005 version, Citizen science falls within the range of information sources that should be used in monitoring and managing the environment.
What is the Aarhus Convention?
The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was adopted in the Aarhus (Århus), Denmark, in 1998 and went into effect on 30 October 2001. Thus far, the European Union and forty six states from Europe and Central Asia have ratified the convention.
The Aarhus Convention has been characterized as the strongest manifestation of procedural environmental rights, which are deeply rooted in the right to live in a healthy environment. Procedural rights are formal steps that are taken in enforcing legal rights, in this case the ability to participate in environmental decision making. The preamble of the Convention recalls both Principle l of the Stockholm Declaration on the right to a healthy environment, and Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The latter principle provides for the right of every person to access environmental information, to participate in the environmental decision-making process, and to access justice in environmental matters with the aim of safeguarding the right to a healthy environment. Remarkably, the Convention draws an important link between its procedural rights and the right to a healthy environment at Article 1.
The Aarhus Convention establishes a set of core rights that seek to:
● increase public access to environmental information held by public authorities (ex Articles 4-5),
● enable public participation in environmental decision-making (ex Articles 6-8); and,
● allow the public to review procedures to challenge public decisions before the courts, in other words, to access environmental justice (ex. Article 9).
You can read the Aarhus convention here. For more information, see also the European Commission website on Aarhus here.
What comments were submitted to UNECE?
At the end of September, the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) submitted comments on the “Recommendations on electronic information tools,” focusing on issues that relate to citizen science in the context of the Aarhus convention. If opportunities for capacity building emerge, ECSA would be an appropriate networking organisation to support these activities. It also creates opportunities for building connections for citizen science with many countries in central Asia.
The “Recommendations on Electronic Information Tools” focus on the use of electronic means to maximize public access to environmental information. This document, adopted in 2005 by the UNECE, aims at enhancing the effectiveness of the Aarhus Convention, as well as the related Kyiv Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs). In current discussions, Aarhus convention and PRTR are discussed together, since the protocol is linked to the convention’s Articles 5 and 10.
Based on the growing evidence in the field of citizen science in general, and in environmental citizen science in particular, we suggested that the promotion of citizen science will support the general goals of the convention. Citizen science can assist in raising public environmental understanding and awareness, improve public ability to access and use environmental information through hands-on learning and increased scientific literacy, and increase public capability to actively participate in environmental decision making. In addition, it holds the potential of providing suitable scientific evidence that can promote access to justice.
The view of citizen science that we shared is a pluralistic one, as can be found in the “ECSA 10 principles of citizen science”  and the “ECSA characteristics of citizen science” . The framework that these documents provide will allow parties to the convention to adopt a suitable definition of citizen science activities that are in line with local practices and capacity.
ECSA Comments Submission: If you are interested in the submission that ECSA made, see the cover letter, the main recommendation document, and the addendum document.
Virtual Discussion on the Aarhus Convention on November 12, 2020: The US Citizen Science Association Law & Policy working group will host a virtual discussion on the Aarhus Convention and ECSA’s comments on citizen science with guests Muki Haklay and Anna Berti Surman on November 12th. To RSVP, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit also the working group’s website to get on the mailing list for future events: https://www.citizenscience.org/get-involved/working-groups/law-policy/
For additional background on procedural rights and the environment, see “Contribution of the Case Law of the European Court of Human Rights to Sustainable Development in Europe” .
We also suggest a link to the discussion on the human right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. Citizen science can be seen as a manifestation of this and other human rights , as discussed in the context of health citizen science (Berti Suman and Pierce 2020) . Earlier this year, Dr. Berti Suman organized a webinar titled “Citizen Sensing: towards a right to contribute to environmental information”, which explored how citizen science could voice people’s desire and even entitlement to contribute to environmental information, when faced with official data gaps .
The recently published European Commission guidelines and best practices on citizen science for environmental monitoring  provide additional insights and relevant recommendations for governmental authorities, citizen science communities and associations, and other relevant stakeholders that are relevant to the Aarhus Convention.
Lastly, Effy and Tasioulas (2015) argue that we have a human right to citizen science .
Picture: Protecting your environment: The power is in your hands - Quick guide to the Aarhus Convention. Diagram p.14 (2014).