People depend on a healthy environment for life and livelihoods. However decisions that have significant environmental and social consequences are often made without the involvement of those whose interests are directly at stake. In order to safeguard the quality of the environment, it is essential to empower communities, individuals and civil society organisations (CSOs) to take part in decision-making.
Public participation improves the legitimacy of decisions, helps build stakeholder capacity, improves implementation and improves sustainability of decisions (UNEP, 2012). Open and transparent processes enable citizens to identify environmental issues and problems, become engaged in decision-making processes and hold government agencies, officials and companies accountable (Foti et al, 2008). They also allow the private sector to address environmental issues earlier on and in a cost effective manner.
Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration from 1992 states that environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens (UNCSD, 1992). It states that each individual shall have:
- Access to information concerning the environment;
- The opportunity to participate in decision-making processes; and
- Effective access to justice.
Many countries, regardless of their level of economic development, have promoted these pillars as policy aspirations or as enforceable legal rights. Yet, even where progress has been significant, more work remains if such laws are to be implemented in a way that is meaningful to all citizens.
This topic was developed by The Access Initiative.
Examples in Practice
Canada’s environment impact assessment legislation establishes opportunities for participation
In Canada, members of the public can participate at various stages of the environmental assessment process.
To start with, when the Environment Agency receives a complete project description, it must consider whether or not an environmental assessment is required. During this time the public can comment on the proposed project and its potential for causing adverse environmental effects. When it has been decided that an environmental assessment is required, the public is given an opportunity to comment on which aspects of the environment may be affected by the project and what should be examined during the environmental assessment.
Once the proponent has submitted its environmental impact statement, the public is again invited to comment on the identified potential environmental effects and the measures to prevent or mitigate those effects. Finally, the public is provided an opportunity to comment on the draft environmental assessment report. This document includes the Agency’s conclusions regarding the potential environmental effects of the project, the mitigation measures that were considered and the significance of the remaining adverse environmental effects.
At the end of the environmental assessment, a decision statement is issued that states whether the proposed project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects. It includes conditions, consisting of mitigation measures and a follow-up program that the proponent must fulfil to proceed with the project. If a proposed project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, it is referred to the Governor in Council (Cabinet) to determine whether the environmental effects are justified in the circumstances. The conclusions of the Governor in Council would be included in the decision statement.
Chile requires that environmental information is published in an accessible form
In Chile a law was approved in 2012 which created the Agency for Environmental Assessment. Specific language in the Law establishes the obligation for the government and the investors to deliver information to local communities in a format which is accessible, taking into account their socio and cultural background as well as their level of education.
Environmental impact assessment regulations in Chile make special provisions for indigenous people
According to recently enacted Environmental Impact Assessment Procedures in Chile, indigenous people are considered protected populations. Every time that a project or activity may affect them, they have the right to engage in the decision-making process.
Ghana has developed an environmental law database and placed all its environmental legislation online
Ghana is also the first African country to create AKOBEN an environmental performance rating and disclosure initiative of pollution by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which provides access to information on the release of mining and other wastes into the environment.
Ghana has taken steps to strengthen participation in environmental impact assessments
Ghana’s Environmental Assessment Regulations from 1999 established a framework for public participation in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). This framework has been progressively strengthened. The regulations make it illegal for a project to proceed without an approved environmental impact statement and permit and require that developers make environmental management plans publicly available.
EIA processes must be announced ahead of time in a variety of ways, including newspaper ads and announcements on the national radio and television stations. Local media—such as the beating of the “gong gong”—are used in more remote areas of the country, and paper notices must be posted in areas likely to feel the effects of the project.
In addition, the project proponent must describe the project and the predicted environmental impact in the local language. Members of the local community—including invited leaders, farmers’ organisations, and NGOs—are given time to air their opinions, and the project proponent is expected to respond.
The success of the EIA process is evident in a number of outcomes. Public hearings have affected many decisions in Ghana, including the size of a shopping mall, the siting of a Shell Company service station, and involuntary resettlement in gold mining projects. In an internal survey, the government of Ghana found that 76.2 percent of government institutions used EIA data, and that 66 percent of those did so regularly, including in the siting, design, and implementation of projects.
Hungary publishes a state of the environment report
Hungary’s Ministry of the Environment and Water produces three publications: State of the Environment Indicators, The Environmental Data Compendium, and The Statistical Compendium (joint publication with other ministries). The Ministry designates a team of scientists and specialists to gather the data for the three reports, and the reports contain a wide range of indicators and data. However less progress has been made in communicating these reports in user friendly ways.
In Austria the law provides for citizens groups to participate in Environmental Impact Assessment
Austria’s Federal Act on Environmental Impact Assessment law from 2000 grants standing to neighbouring public, citizens’ groups, and certain environmental organisations to participate and make appeals throughout the environment impact assessment process. The law also requires the government authority to publicly announce when a proposed project is subject to an environment impact assessment and provides that citizens may participate in post-approval monitoring of the development.
In the Philippines local people’s organisations must be included in the management board for protected areas
The Philippines has enacted a law on the establishment of national protected areas. The law explicitly acknowledges that many poor people (and, in some areas, communities of indigenous peoples) have either settled within national park boundaries or use national park resources to support livelihoods including slash-and-burn agriculture and the gathering of timber and non-timber products.
To engage poor users in national park management and to improve a sense of community ownership for park protection, the law established a Protected Area Management Board which must include members of people’s organisations or local non-governmental organisations.
India’s Green Tribunal enables citizens to get access to justice in environmental protection cases
India’s National Green Tribunal was established in 2010 to ensure speedy disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and natural resources and facilitate the enforcement of legal rights relating to the environment. It handles a wide range of matters including the conservation of forests and providing compensation for damages and decisions on environmental permitting. The body is a specialised tribunal with the jurisdiction of higher courts. It grants wide standing for citizens to place cases before the tribunal and provides access to all its decisions online.
South Africa has guidelines on involving excluded groups in environmental decision-making
In South Africa, there are legal provisions for citizens to contribute in environmental impact assessment processes. The government has a constitutional obligation to encourage public participation by local communities in matters that affects their day to day lives. Several relevant departments have also developed guidelines and policies on public participation in environmental impact assessments, particularly on how to engage excluded groups, such as rural population, poor people, black women, illiterate people, and young people.
Thailand requires environmental information to be proactively released
Thailand has adopted rules that specify the type of environmental and health information that must be proactively released under their Official Information Act art 9(8).
The Mexican government has established an outreach partnership with local NGOs
Several Mexican Non-governmental organisations have entered into a strategic partnership with the Mexican government through the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales -SEMARNAT). The partnership has resulted in an agreement to implement outreach actions on access to environmental information and participation and justice, including workshops and guidelines.
The Netherlands publishes citizen input in strategic environmental assessment as part of the public record
In the Netherlands, the process of conducting Strategic Environmental Assessments, for which the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment are responsible, builds on both transparency and participation. When a Strategic Environmental Assessment report gets published, the public is invited to submit their views. The public inputs, in turn, become part of the public record and fed into the work of the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) which reviews all Strategic Environmental Assessment reports and publishes an assessment documenting the response to major concerns.
The Philippines has established special courts for environmental cases
In January 2008, the Philippines issued an Administrative Order Re: Designation of Special Courts to Hear, Try and Decide Environmental Cases. As a result, 117 environmental courts were created to hear a wide range of cases that addressed the protection of the environment and natural resources, including air, marine pollution forest and fisheries cases. Rules of procedure for environmental cases were especially designed to provide a simplified, speedy and inexpensive process for enforcing environmental rights and duties in line with the Constitution, existing laws, rules and regulations, and international agreements.
The US established an executive order on environmental justice for minority and poor populations
In 1994, following public concern that toxic waste sites were disproportionately located near low-income and minority populations, the US Government enacted Executive Order 12898 ‘Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations’.
The regulation requires speciﬁc efforts to inform and involve poor and minority communities in agency decisions that affect the environment, and established an Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice to design a set of operational guidelines for federal agencies. It also mandated that federal agencies develop strategies to improve and ensure enforcement of environmental laws in poor and minority communities; foster greater public participation; and improve information collection on environmental health and resource consumption in poor and minority communities.
There have been some challenges in the implementation of the law as a result of lack of funding and political will. The presidential memorandum exempted the regulation from any sort of legal action, stating that it, “is not intended to create any right, benefit, or trust responsibility, substantive or procedural, enforceable by law or by equity by a party against the United States, its agencies, its officers or any person.” Because of this, the Order is arguably not reviewable by any court.
The US Toxics Release Inventory programme provides information on toxic discharges by corporations
Following the Bhopal tragedy in India and a serious chemical release in West Virginia in 1985, the US Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) Programme was created in 1986 as part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).
The TRI was part of a new approach to environmental protection. By making information about industrial management of toxic chemicals available to the public it aims to create incentive for companies to improve environmental performance. There are currently over 650 chemicals covered by the TRI Program. Facilities that manufacture, process or otherwise use these chemicals in amounts above established levels must submit annual TRI reports on each chemical.
Since the TRI was launched, environmental agencies across the world have increasingly implemented their own programmes using TRI as a model. Currently, at least 50 countries have fully established Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers or have implemented pilot programmes.
Sustainable development goals that relate to this topic
Open government – transparency, participation and accountability – can help safeguarding the environment in a variety of ways. Empowering communities, individuals and civil society organizations to participate in decision-making on environmental issues can improve the legitimacy of decisions, enhance implementation and improve sustainability of decisions. Open and transparent processes can enable citizens to identify environmental issues and problems, become engaged in decision-making and hold government agencies, officials and companies to account.
End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Responsible Consumption and Production
Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*
Life on Land
Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Partnership for the Goals
Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
- Adopt legal requirements for the collection and production of environmental information
- Introduce procedures for public comments and hearings for environment related decisions
- Establish independent mechanisms for access to justice in environmental affairs
- Establish procedures for ensuring poor and marginalised groups are included in public engagement on environmental decisions