Setting the major directions to strengthen effective public participation and access to information and justice by 2025 was the focus of the twenty-fifth meeting of the Working Group of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) (Geneva, 3 May and 7 and 8 June 2021). Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academia and other stakeholders gathered to finalize a number of decisions on the future work for the seventh session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention (Geneva, 18–21 October 2021). The subjects addressed included: a proposal to set up a rapid response mechanism to ensure greater protection of environmental defenders; ways to promote electronic information tools and inclusive and effective public participation and access to justice; and participatory approaches to ensuring sustainable, inclusive and resilient development. Austria, Belgium, France and the Republic of Moldova offered to lead different work areas under the Convention.
The meeting featured two thematic sessions: the first on promoting the principles of the Convention in international forums, led by France, with a thematic focus on geoengineering and biosafety; and the second, organized in cooperation with the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and led by Austria, which focused on access to information, public participation and access to justice in relation to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
International processes on geoengineering and biosafety
Geoengineering comprises large-scale interventions in Earth’s systems with the objective of delaying or suppressing some of the symptoms of climate change. Representatives of the International Risk Governance Centre of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Centre for Biodiversity and the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Germany)/European ECO Forum spoke on these topics. It was highlighted among other issues that there was a lack of policies and plans concerning this type of technology, and the uncertainty surrounding the use and the environmental impacts of this technology makes discussion, stakeholder engagement and public participation on the matter very complicated. Speakers stressed that development of such types of technology must build on existing multilateral decisions and international norms due to their global impacts. It was further noted that until such international regulations were in place and meaningful, global and transparent public participation, also involving vulnerable groups, was ensured, the existing moratorium on climate-related geoengineering deployment must be respected and outdoor experiments banned.
Touching upon the matter of biosafety, representatives of Finland, the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the NGO Ecoropa/European ECO Forum shared good practices and challenges regarding public participation and access to information. This included the Biosafety Clearing House as an important global database providing access to information related to GMOs, risk assessment and related national decisions. Other elements highlighted by speakers were the importance of involving indigenous representatives and environmental NGOs when preparing national positions concerning implementation and monitoring of the national biodiversity strategy and action plan, and the need to ensure that the principles of the Convention are applied consistently and systematically.
Transparency and participatory approaches to GMO-related decision-making
Ensuring effective public participation in GMO-related decision-making faces several systemic challenges: national regulators in some countries lack expertise on GMOs; procedures to regulate access to information and public participation are fragmented and do not cover all aspects of GMO- related matters; and risk assessments of new genetic engineering techniques have become more complex and training and infrastructure are lacking in some countries.
To respond to these challenges, the recently completed Pocket Guide promoting effective access to information and public participation regarding LMOs/GMOs was presented. Jointly prepared by the secretariats of the Aarhus Convention and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Pocket Guide is based on experiences shared by Parties and stakeholders, as well as capacity-building resources developed under the two instruments related to access to information and public participation regarding living modified organisms (LMOs)/GMOs. The Pocket Guide is a tool for strengthening capacity in providing effective access to information and public participation in decision-making processes regarding LMOs/GMOs.
During the GMO thematic session, representatives of Serbia, Tunisia, KROK University (Ukraine), the secretariat of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the NGO Ecoropa/European ECO Forum spoke about national legal, strategic and institutional frameworks concerning GMOs and shared good practices and challenges in enhancing public awareness, access to information and enabling public participation in GMO-related matters. In this regard, key elements of the two relevant international instruments, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Aarhus Convention, were also summarized. Parties were encouraged to continue strengthening coordination and cooperation between national focal points of the two treaties.