Aarhus Convention, 20th anniversary meeting of the parties

By Cath Wallace
Environment and Conservation Organisations of Aotearoa New Zealand

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two contributory articles from Cath Wallace, the highly respected eco-expert and environmental advocate. See Accession to the Aarhus Convention will benefit New Zealand

Parties who have acceded to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Arhus Convention) joined in a hybrid online /in person meeting in Geneva from 18-22 October. 

Topics of discussion included:

  • Maintaining environmental democracy
  • Protection of environmental defenders
  • Using digital technologies supplemented by other mechanisms to provide environmental information efficiently and effectively
  • Mechanisms for public participation

The focus for this is achieving the related UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The need for such measures and the risks to environmental democracy and rights in the COVID crisis is crucial context.

The meeting date coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Aarhaus Convention and was the 7th meeting of the Parties.

COVID-19 fast tracks and maintaining public participation

The advent of COVID-19 controls is not an issue as such, but the delegates and observers have marked out maintaining public participation and democratic processes in COVID-19 times as a significant focus.

Environmental groups internationally and in New Zealand have noticed governments using COVID as an excuse to regress on democratic processes and to fast track infrastructure and other projects.

COVID was used by the New Zealand government as an excuse for fast tracking infrastructure and funding law and the Urban Development Bill, initiatives begun before the threat of COVID-19 had emerged.

Sustainable Infrastructure and spatial planning

The Aarhus meeting sessions featured a joint high-level segment where delegations focused on the role of the Aarhus Convention and its Protocol in furthering sustainable infrastructure and spatial planning.

Aarhus parties adopted a work plan to 2024 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    
  • sustainable, inclusive and resilient development
  • promotion of the Aarhus principles for adoption in other international instruments.


Also considered at the meeting was preparatory work from a June 2021 workshop on applying these approaches to geo-engineering and biosafety; and participatory approaches in relation to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Geo-engineering relates to proposals to modify Earth systems as a counter to climate destabilisation and biophysical disruption. Examples proposed in the past include placing huge mirrors in space to deflect sunlight from heating the atmosphere or using iron-fertilisation of the ocean to absorb CO2.

Tempting as they may sound, such approaches come with major downsides. For example, Iron fertilisation trials were found to actually increase ocean acidification by causing algal blooms which then did not sequester the carbon on the sea floor.

New Zealand tending to curtail public input

New Zealand’s own environmental reforms appear increasingly to tend to cutting down public input in proposed new legislative proposals. The time for public and Parliamentary scrutiny is too often recklessly short.

The most recent example, the omnibus COVID-19 Response (Management Measures) Legislation Bill, contains a multitude of amendments to several laws, some significantly affecting democratic participation. Introduced to Parliament on 28 September, the Bill was opened for submissions on 1 October, closing on 5 October. This despite it providing for delays of up to three years in reviews of 10 year local government policies and plans, provisions for suspension of local government election processes, a five month delay to the promulgation of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan, and various other provisions altering several Acts, including giving judges the sole power to rearrange the rules for their courts.

Select Committee hearings began almost immediately.

There has been little fan-fare for this Bill, and some of its provisions are technical, but time to consider the implications of the changes proposed is needed. What is allocated only allows the most perfunctory consideration.

It seems that we now have not only the virus of COVID-19 but the virus of the COVID-19-Excuse for retreat from democratic participation. It might be that Aarhus could be the antidote to that virus.




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