Political agreement reached on public participation on environmental decision-making

The European Commission has welcomed a political agreement settled this week by the Environment Council regarding the proposal for a directive on public participation in the preparation of environmental plans, programmes and projects with significant environmental impacts.

The Council endorsed two important European parliament amendments that aim to improve the information the public receives about decisions taken, and enhance the use of electronic media. To bring information provision fully in line with the Aarhus convention, the Commission is hoping it will be able to secure public participation when industrial operating permits are updated in the Parliament’s second reading.

“Pubic participation is environmental decision-making needs to become a fully integrated part of administrative procedure,” said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström on the day of the decision. “With this objective we have negotiated and signed the Aarhus Convention. Today’s political agreement is an important step to pave the way for the Convention being ratified by the Community.”

The Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters, was signed by the Community and Member States in 1998. It entered into force on 30 October 2001, and calls for the public to be informed of potential decisions at an early stage, to be allowed to give their opinion, to have the authorities take their views into account and to be informed of any decisions made. The new proposal relates to the implementation of the second ‘pillar’ of the convention, adding to the proposal on public access to environmental information, which was agreed at June’s Environment Council meeting. Both proposals will have to go through a second reading in the European Parliament.

The adopted proposal establishes common basic procedures for public participation in a number of environmental plans and programmes, in the sectors of waste, air pollution and protection of water against nitrate pollution. It completes other directives that already take up the Aarhus provisions on public participation, such as the directive on strategic environmental assessment and the water framework directive.

For environmentally significant projects, the proposal amends the directives on environmental impact assessment and on integrated pollution prevention and control. It also establishes access to justice for decisions, acts or omissions subject to the public participation provisions.

The Council also expressed its pleasure at the success of the recent Marrakech talks, which paved the way for the Kyoto Protocol to be written into national law. The council reaffirmed its intention of ratifying Kyoto in time for the Johannesburg summit in September 2002.

The council of environment ministers also called for the EU to adopt without delay further policies and measures on greenhouse gas emissions to complement the moves being made by member states to ensure that the EU meets the emission reduction targets set for 2008/2012. It also welcomed the presentation of a proposal for a directive on greenhouse gas emission allowance trading within the Community.

On transport, the Council also confirmed that it is ready, if necessary, to consider further measures such as enabling fuel efficient technologies through enhanced environmental specifications, for example by introducing low sulphur fuels.

It also invited the Commission to look at whether VAT rates could be differentiated to give energy-saving products a boost. Another agreement was to stress the need for an inventory and review, to take place as soon as possible, of subsidies that counteract the efficient and sustainable use of energy, with a view to gradually phasing them out.

The Council also suggested that the Commission should intensify its examination of possible common and coordinated policies and measures aimed at developing appropriate proposals to address other sources of greenhouse gases. These would include methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture and animal husbandry, nitrous oxide emissions from the chemicals industry and elsewhere, methane leakage from energy production and distribution and emissions from waste management activities.

On pesticides, the Council resolved to continue to encourage member states to adopt the precautionary principle, and invited the Commission to propose without delay a strategy for the sustainable use of pesticides. Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström informed the environment ministers of the progress so far on a strategy for the sustainable use of pesticides.

She also gave a presentation on the modifications in the draft Seveso II Directive, which has just been published. This is intended to widen the scope of EU legislation on prevention of major industrial accidents and would bring mining and extractive industries into the directive’s ambit. It would also strengthen regulations on the manufacture and storage of explosives.

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