Environmental information: New directive giving the public better access takes effect
New rules giving the European public better access to environmental information became binding for all European Union (EU) Member States on 14 February 2005. The new directive strengthens the existing EU rules in this area, aligning them with the environmental information requirements of the 1998 Aarhus Convention. This Convention grants the public access to environmental information, provides for public participation in environmental decision-making and allows the public to seek redress when environmental law is infringed. The new rules are a key step towards improved transparency in environmental policy making. It will pave the way for giving citizens a greater say in environmental matters.
Stavros Dimas, Commissioner for the Environment, said: "Europe's citizens now have not only the freedom but also the right to obtain environmental information that is held or produced by public authorities." He added: "Information can be a powerful catalyst for change towards increased protection of the environment and I hope citizens will make the best use of it."
The new directive on public access to environmental information (Directive 2003/4/EC) replaces an earlier directive dating from 1990 (Directive 90/313/EEC). It provides that every natural or legal person, regardless of citizenship, nationality or residence, has a right of access to environmental information held or produced by public authorities. Examples of such information are data on emissions into the environment, their impact on public health and the results of environmental impact assessments.
The central elements of the new directive are:
- To grant a right of access to environmental information (as opposed to freedom of access currently) and to ensure that environmental information is made available and disseminated actively to the public;
- A broader definition of environmental information as well as a more detailed definition of public authorities
- A deadline of one month (reduced from two currently) for public authorities to supply the information requested;
- Clarification of the circumstances under which authorities may refuse to provide information. Access to information shall be granted if the public interest served by the disclosure outweighs the interest served by a refusal;
- Two types of review procedures have been laid down for the public to challenge acts or omissions of public authorities relating to requests for environmental information.
To date, the Commission has received official notifications from nine Member States of their national measures to transpose the directive. Infringement procedures will be initiated soon against those that have not notified their national measures.
In December 2004, the Environment Council gave the green light for the EU to ratify the Aarhus Convention and also reached political agreement on a Regulation that will apply the Convention's provisions to Community institutions and bodies. Besides public access to environmental information, the EU is also bringing itself into line with the two other dimensions of the Aarhus Convention. A directive on public participation in decision-making, adopted in 2003, will take effect in June 2005. A directive covering the third pillar of the Convention, access to justice in environmental matters, was proposed by the Commission in October 2003 and is still under discussion in the Council.
The Environment - is your workplace polluting it?
You will probably answer "no" to the question. But from everyone's point of view our environment must be well cared for. In particular we need to make sure that our industrial activities do not pollute the world around us. Quite often people do not realise that their work may affect the air we breathe, the water we drink and enjoy for recreational purposes and the trees, plants and countryside around us.
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