The second pillar of the Aarhus Convention is based on the concept of participation and draws from Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration: “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level”.
- What are the minimum requirements for public participation?
- Who benefits from the right to participate?
- What are the different types of environmental decisions?
- How is participation organised in Belgium?
In short, the Convention imposes the following basic requirements on public authorities: to inform, allow sufficient time and take matters into account. Participating requires being informed. It is therefore important that the public be given precise, correct and timely information. The timeframes for participation must be provided for at the earliest possible stage, right from the start of the first stages of the process when all options are still open, and according to a pre-established schedule. Finally, the public authority concerned must thereby take into account the results of this public participation when it makes its final decision. The public must also be informed of the manner in which these results were taken into account. If public opinion was not taken into consideration when the authority made its decision, it must explain the reasons for this.
Only people directly concerned with the problem in question may participate in the consultative process.
- The profile of this public must be determined beforehand by the public authority.
- Furthermore, environmental non-governmental associations are included de facto in this target group by the Convention (Article 2.5).
There are four types of decisions concerning the right to participate:
- the issuing of authorisations for certain activities or installations;
- the development of environmental plans or programmes;
- the development of environmental policies;
- the preparation of regulations.
N.B.: Regarding the relevant authorities for these various forms of participation, read below How is participation organised in Belgium?
- Participation upon issuing authorisations for certain activities or installations:
This frequent form of participation is mainly exercised upon issuing permits, such as an environmental permit. It applies when authorisation requests are made for specific activities or projects stemming from certain sectors of activity considered to be highly pollutant (chemical industry, energy industry, waste, etc.). It allows the public to contribute to the decision-making procedure. Two articles in the Aarhus Convention deal with this form of participation:
Article 6, of general scope, provides for the following measures:
- The information relating to the authorisation request for these activities or projects must be available free of charge to the public.
- The competent authorities must also inform the public of the decisions made and must justify them.
- Finally, an appeal procedure is provided for (see Article 9.2 of the Convention).
- Participation in plans or programmes relating to the environment:
Article 7 of the Convention offers the public the possibility of participating in the development of plans and programmes. It concerns the tools set out by the public authorities for organising, in time and space, the activities of society, closely or remotely affecting the environment or the living environment. For example: the plans developed relating to town and country planning or those included in a clear environmental strategy concerning, for instance, the fight against climate change, waste management, or linked to the protection of nature.
Participation during the development of environmental policies:
The Convention recommends that public authorities allow the public to participate in the development of environmental policies (see Article 7, last sentence). In Belgium, this form of participation is especially applied through plans and programmes that are most often the best adapted and most used tool for developing environmental policies (see the preceding paragraph: “Participation during plans or programmes relating to the environment”).
- Participation during the preparation of regulations:
The Convention recognises the role the public can play in drawing up regulations resulting from the action of public authorities. Article 8 gives public authorities the responsibility of implementing the necessary means for effective participation. This can also take place through representative consultative bodies.
The participation procedures targeted by the Convention concern different levels of authority in Belgium. The most common forms of participation, for permit procedures, depend for the most part on the Regions. There are still several exceptions where the federal authority remains the relevant authority: for authorising activities in the North Sea (within the jurisdiction of Belgium) and nuclear power station operations.
- The distribution of environmental authority in Belgium
- See Implementation in Belgium for the websites of the federal and regional authorities.