The Norwegian Government today submitted a proposal for a new Act on the Right to Environmental Information. It provides all citizens with a legal right to obtain environmental information, both from public authorities and from public and private enterprises. Environment Minister Børge Brende encourages people to use the new law actively.
– If the new Act is to have any effect, it must be used. The right to information is a basic democratic right and at the same time a necessary instrument in our efforts to strengthen the implementation of environmental policies, says Environment Minister Børge Brende. At the same time the Act will be important for environmental organisations and for the media in their efforts to disseminate information about issues of importance for the environment.
The Act involves new obligations for private enterprises to provide environmental information to citizens upon request. All areas of economic activity are included (industrial production as well as service industries and the Act also includes such areas as agriculture and forestry). It gives citizens the right to demand information on everything from production processes to the content of the products which are used and which are sold. Neighbours to a polluting industrial enterprise have the right to know what substances the enterprise is releasing to the environment and what effects these substances have on the environment.
A paint dealer must be able to answer questions about what substances the products he uses or sells contain which can harm the environment, and a farmer must be able to answer questions about which pesticides he uses. Information on substances or product attributes harmful to health and the environment shall be available at all stages of production and use and be readily available for the users of the products.
Not all products create environmental problems in Norway, but production and distribution abroad may be environmentally harmful, for example garden furniture made of timber from threatened rain forests. The new Act will give citizens the right to ask also for this kind of information. This can help to support ethical and environmentally aware consumption, and increase awareness of the environmental consequences of Norwegian consumption patterns also outside of Norwegian borders.
The Act also extends the right of citizens to obtain information about the environmental consequences of the activities and decisions of public bodies. This right applies to state, country and municipal bodies. People are entitled both to know whether public bodies follow up their own goals concerning environmentally friendly operation, and to get information about the environmental consequences of public administration and decisions of public bodies, such as for example the environmental consequences of a transport plan or a particular road development. The work which has started on Green Government will be a key instrument for establishing the environmental consequences of state activities. By 2005 all state institutions are to incorporate environmental management as an integral part of the leadership system of the organisation.
The Act requires that public bodies are required to have knowledge and general information about the environment and make it easily available to the general public. The objective is that citizens shall be able to follow and have an overview of the development of environmental problems, both nationally and locally. – Public bodies have a responsibility to disseminate this type of information, says Brende. He emphasises that not only environmental authorities, but all sectors must take responsibility for this. For example, fishery authorities will be responsible for disseminating environmental information about the state of fishery resources and the environmental consequences of fishery policies and oil and energy authorities will be responsible for disseminating information on environmental aspects of energy supply and production. The municipalities will have a special responsibility for ensuring that the inhabitants of the municipality have access to environmental information which enables them to form a picture of the environmental situation in the municipality, for example about how environmental considerations are taken into account in land planning.
Public bodies must strengthen administrative procedures in dealing with requests for access to information, says Brende. The Act states that information which is requested from public bodies must be provided within a very short deadline, maximum 15 days. If the authorities exceptionally do not manage to provide the information requested within 15 days, they must provide a good explanation. The public sector is also obliged to make the information easily available and understandable. This will also be a challenge!
Representatives of environmental organisations, media, industry and consumer organisations are to be "judges" in an appeals board which will be established to consider complaints related to the follow up of this Act in private enterprises. An appeals board is necessary to ensure that the Act is complied with. It is also important that it is the interest groups and users of the Act which should help define the limits of how far the Act goes, says Børge Brende. Half of the members of the appeals board will be people with an industry background, and the other half will be people with a background in an environmental organisation, a consumer organisation or media. These groups will designate their own representatives.
Already in 1992 a provision on the right to environmental information was included in the Constitution and the new Act is an important step in making this provision more concrete and operational. The Act is also necessary for following up Norwegian obligations under international agreements, but the Bill goes significantly further in several respects.
The Bill is the result of a proposal from a broadly composed committee (The Environmental Information Committee), where also industry was represented. I am pleased to note that industry has shown that they have accepted responsibility on this issue, says Brende.
– The Act is not the end of the road, but an important step in strengthening the right to environmental information. Our experiences in following up and implementing this law may show that there will be a need to develop further and make more precise the rights and obligations which the Act introduces. The main purpose of the Environmental Information Act is that it should make it possible for citizens, by getting better access to information, to take active part in and contribute to efforts to improve protection of the environment, says Brende.