Transparency in the environmental performance of economic activities and effective public access to environmental information, especially on products, are indispensable in addressing pressing environmental challenges. This also supports a just transition towards a green and circular economy, enabling consumers to make environmental choices, developing sustainable value chains and strengthening trust in public authorities.
To share experiences in this area, the Task Force on Access to Information, under the auspices of the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), brought together public authorities, civil society, the private sector, academia, international organizations and other stakeholders in Geneva on 9–10 November 2023. The meeting featured an international workshop entitled “Advancing public access to environment-related product information: Challenges and opportunities”, which was organized in cooperation with the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the One Planet Network and the European Environment Agency.
Opening the meeting, the Chair, Ms. Iordanca-Rodica Iordanov, Minister for Environment of the Republic of Moldova, stated that: “Information stands as a pivotal factor in shaping consumer choices. Heightened environmental concerns and increased awareness of the public in environmental matters are driving a shift towards more environment-friendly choices. Therefore, it is important to discuss challenges and opportunities in advancing public access to environment-related product information, a crucial step in the transition towards a green, circular and digital economy.”
Mr. Marco Keiner, Director, Environment Division, UNECE, noted that: “Transitioning to green, circular and digital economy and sustainable use of natural resources should remain a crucial objective for all societies. UNECE, together with partner organizations, provides a number of tools and platforms that can facilitate the widespread adoption of this approach. The Aarhus Convention and its Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers remain important instruments supporting transparent, inclusive and informed decision-making, paving the way for such transformation and promoting public engagement in environmental protection and sustainable consumption.”
Ms. Elisabeth Tuerk Director, Economic Cooperation and Trade Division, UNECE, pointed out that: “Public access to information is key to tackling the environmental and social costs that global value chains entail, as well as to achieving the transition towards a circular and green economy. However, the current level of supply chain transparency is very poor, and this is a challenge. Advanced technologies, with adequate capacity building support, have the potential to increase trust in sustainability claims for products and materials, enhance B2B and B2C communication, and improve access to reliable information on compliance with regulatory requirements, especially for developing and transition economies.”
Mr. Jorge Laguna-Celis, Director, One Planet Network, UNEP, emphasized that: “Despite the challenges that still exist surrounding transparency, public participation and environmental accountability, we are at a unique moment where emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain possess huge potential to enhance the traceability and management of materials, resources and components across supply chains so that positive environmental interventions can take place, and consumers can be better informed to make sustainable consumption choices.”
The participants discussed legal and policy developments in public access to environment-related product information, the use of product passports and other digital tools, means to encourage operators to inform the public and measures against greenwashing. Representatives of the European Commission, the European Environment Agency, Italy, North Macedonia, Serbia, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Aarhus Centres shared the current trends, lessons learned and necessary measures to address existing challenges in this area. Representatives of UNEP, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and UNECE highlighted major developments and tools.
The discussion helped to identify several legislative and practical measures required to address existing challenges and further promote effective public access to environment-related product information, such as awareness-raising, education and training courses, establishing digital product passports and other digital tools, adjusting nationwide digital environmental information systems, eco-labelling, eco-audit and green public procurement schemes, introducing legal requirements for green claims based on life cycle approach, strengthening legal sanctions, investigating unfair competition, promoting collective redress and adopting other measures against greenwashing.
Furthermore, the Task Force meeting promoted the exchange of case studies, good practices and challenges, and considered recent and upcoming developments in relation to strengthening public access to environmental information. In particular, the Task Force discussed: (a) the scope of environmental information; (b) access to information on emissions into the environment; and (c) the provision of information to public authorities by third parties, both routinely and in case of an imminent threat to human health or the environment. The Task Force took stock of the use of the Recommendations on electronic information tools, including with regard to the development of nationwide digital environmental information systems and the benefits of citizen science. Experiences were shared by representatives of Albania, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Kazakhstan and Latvia, the European Ombudsman, several NGOs, Aarhus Centres and financial and business organizations. The participants also learned about recent activities of other relevant international forums, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Task Force identified: (a) an increased demand for environmental information in the context of climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity protection, disaster risk reduction and energy-related matters; (b) measures needed to improve timely access to environmental information in the context of decision-making procedures and to establish effective review mechanisms when access to information is denied; and (c) the need to further strengthen public access to environmental information regarding radioactive substances, biocides, lead, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other chemicals of emerging concern, and carbon and ammonia emissions. Participants noted the benefits of pollutant release and transfer registers and the need to guarantee the availability of environmental information in child-friendly formats. The Task Force also called for: (a) the establishment of clear legal obligations for third parties, including foreign investors, to provide environmental information to public authorities; and (b) the promotion of effective enforcement mechanisms, sanctions and incentives to encourage provision of information to public authorities and the public about the environmental impacts of third parties’ activities and products throughout their life cycles.
The outcomes of the meeting are expected to assist countries in achieving target 16.10 of the Sustainable Development Goals (Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms), Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and a number of other Sustainable Development Goals and targets.
For more information on the meeting please visit https://unece.org/environmental-policy/events/Aarhus_PP_8TFAI_API_workshop
A further useful resource is https://aarhusclearinghouse.unece.org/