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Environmental impact assessment and public participation

Certain projects (private or public) that are likely to have significant effects on the environment, e.g. the construction of a motorway or an airport, are subject to an environmental impact assessment (EIA). Equally, a range of public plans and programmes (e.g. concerning land use, transport, energy, waste or agriculture) are subject to a similar process called a strategic environmental assessment (SEA). Here, environmental considerations are already integrated at the planning phase, and possible consequences are taken into account before a project is approved or authorised so as to ensure a high level of environmental protection. In both cases, consultation with the public is a central aspect. This goes back to the Aarhus Convention, a multilateral environmental agreement under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which entered into force in 2001 and to which the EU and all its Member States are parties. It guarantees three rights to the public: public participation in environmental decision-making, access to environmental information held by public authorities (e.g. on the state of the environment or human health where affected by the latter), and the right of access to justice where the other two rights have been disregarded.