Many environmental laws oblige governments to share information they gather about the state of the environment. This empowers citizens like you, so you can track where potentially hazardous sites are, what power plants are pumping into the atmosphere, and how the water quality compares between different beaches and bathing areas.
The EU has signed the UN Aarhus Convention, which entered into force on 30 October 2001. The Convention gives you the right to view environmental information held by public authorities (this is known as "access to environmental information"). This can include information on the state of the environment, on policies or measures taken, and on the state of human health and safety if this can be affected by the state of the environment.
You are entitled to this information within one month of asking, and you don't have to say why you want it.
The Convention also gives you a right to participate in environmental decision-making.
Public authorities have to make arrangements to enable the public and NGOs to comment on proposals for projects affecting the environment, or plans and programmes relating to the environment. These comments must be taken into account when decisions are made, and the public must be informed about the final decisions and the reasons behind it ("public participation in environmental decision-making").
It also gives you the right to challenge public decisions that have been made without respecting environmental law ("access to justice").
Lastly, the Convention obliges authorities to actively disseminate the environmental information they possess. A lot of this information is now centralised at EU level. This means that you can zero in on the EU's protected areas with the Natura 2000 viewer, check the air emissions in your vicinity with the EPRTR, and explore numerous environmental maps with the Eye on Earth.
Huge amounts of information are centralised through the European Environment Agency, through EIONET, its European environment information and observation network.
EIONET brings together environment bodies, agencies, public and private research centres and centres of expertise across Europe. It consists of the EEA, six European Topic Centres and a network of around 1000 experts from 39 countries in over 350 national environment agencies and other bodies dealing with environmental information.