OECD countries debate environmental openness

Stakeholders call for more action by governments, business, to implement Århus convention

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries have reviewed progress towards improved public access to environmental information during a seminar in Athens which ended on Wednesday. The meeting marks the start of a review process for a 1998 OECD recommendation on environmental information.

Due to a range of national and international initiatives over the last decade, public access to environmental information improved considerably during the 1990s, according to official conclusions from the Athens conference. In addition to the OECD recommendation the EU passed a directive on access to environmental information in 1990, whose rules have now been strengthened and broadened under the pan-European 1998 Århus convention (ENDS Daily 25 June 1998). Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights rules in 1998 that access to environmental information was a human right in certain situations.

More could nevertheless be achieved by all major actors, and especially governments and business, the conference concluded. The public is still "meeting difficulties" in several countries to access some official environmental information, participants observed. While environment ministries tend to have taken a lead, environmental information held by other ministries is often less accessible. Many quasi-public bodies that hold environmental information do not consider themselves bound by rules governing public authorities.

Access to information from governments could be improved by clarifying legal frameworks and better implementing citizens' rights in practice, according to conference chairperson Anne Teller, a Belgian government official. Governments should also raise citizens' awareness of their information rights and enhance transparency through greater use of electronic communications.

Regarding corporate information, conference participants saluted pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTRs) such as the US toxic release inventory both as sources of key information and as catalysts for change in industry. Among areas for progress noted by participants were sharing data across national borders and using PRTRs to monitor progress with international environmental treaties.

It was also suggested that companies should enhance the information they provide by supplementing basic data with information on environmental effects, eco-efficiency, product information, risk analysis and socio-economic data.

Follow Up:
OECD, tel: +33 1 45 24 82 00. See also a pre-meeting press release, and the conference programme and results.

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