Transparency – a positive force for good in climate governance? Debating TRANSGOV project themes at launch event

In the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the four-year TRANSGOV research project organized a launch event at the Earth System Governance Virtual Forum, an annual meeting that brings together a community of researchers and practitioners within the domain of earth system and sustainability governance.

TRANSGOV stands for ‘Transformative Potential of Transparency in Climate Governance’. The project scrutinizes the ever-greater call for transparency in the climate domain. Central questions are: Under what conditions does (what kind of) transparency lead to more accountable, trustworthy and ambitious collective climate action, as is widely assumed? And when is transparency transformative of multilevel climate governance? In addressing these questions, TRANSGOV collaborates with leading scholars and practitioners from universities, research institutes and organisations on various continents.

The semi-plenary session at the ESG Virtual Forum was chaired and moderated by Ina Möller, a postdoctoral researcher in the TRANSGOV project. In addition to the principle investigator, five Global Project Associates also joined the launch event on September 17th 2020, and provided their perspective on transparency in global climate governance.

Aarti Gupta, Professor of Global Environmental Governance at Wageningen University and Principle Investigator of TRANSGOV, opened the session by presenting the motivation for this new project. She outlined, inter alia, four rationales underpinning the embrace of transparency in global climate governance (which she termed democratization, marketization, technocratization and privatization), noting that these might be conflicting, and the importance, therefore, of considering the aims that transparency seeks to realize.

Harro van Asselt, Professor at the University of Eastern Finland and a climate law and policy scholar, then introduced his new research project ‘TRANSCLIM’, which will assess the effects of reporting and review processes in the international climate regime. As stated by van Asselt, ‘we know surprisingly little about the effects of transparency’ in fostering climate action. The TRANSCLIM project will analyze pathways that could link transparency to more ambitious climate action.

Romain Weikmans, a Research Fellow at the Free University of Brussels, presented new findings on ‘Climate Transparency Adherence Indices’, which illustrate the level of countries’ adherence to the transparency requirements under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). He showed that there is no clear pattern of improvement in countries’ adherence to reporting requirements over time and highlighted a number of future research questions. Pointing to the political nature of reporting and review under the UNFCCC, he concluded by saying that ‘the struggle to comply is not only a technical struggle’.

Angel Hsu, from the Yale-NUS college was the next to provide her view on climate transparency. Hsu, who is the director of the Data-Driven Environmental Policy Lab, conducts research on the role of non-state actors, such as regional governments, cities and businesses, in facilitating climate transparency and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. With an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to global climate governance, Hsu argued that transparency of these non-state actor actions becomes crucial in assessing global progress towards the 2015 Paris Agreement temperature targets.

Casey Cronin, a Strategist at the ClimateWorks Foundation, presented on the ‘Independent Global Stocktake’, an initiative launched with multiple partner organizations to support the official Global Stocktake process under the UNFCCC, designed to assess collective progress towards global temperature goals. Cronin welcomed TRANSGOV’s critical interrogation of the widely held assumption (to which his initiative also subscribes) that transparency is automatically a positive force for good, noting the urgent need to assess the conditions under which it might deliver on its transformative potential.

Amy Luers, director of the newly launched Sustainability in the Digital Age Initiative, then discussed the potential for radical, digitally-enabled transparency in disrupting existing climate governance arrangements. She contended that there has been a shift from ‘governance by disclosure’ to ‘data exposure’ (relating to satellite- and remote-sensing based availability of real-time climate-relevant information) and posed a number of thought-provoking questions on how such radical forms of transparency may impact global governance architectures of tomorrow. As a former Google employee, she highlighted the powerful nature of data and her view on digital surveillance related to both the Covid-19 crisis and greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, she noted that the majority of people are not opposed to digital surveillance related to their greenhouse gas emissions.

Following these six brief interventions, an interactive Q&A session with the audience touched on a range of issues. One particular area of interest was to learn about successful examples of radical climate transparency in stimulating positive climate outcomes. Angel Hsu provided illustrations drawing on Google Streetmap and the Global Covenant of Mayors, a global network of cities. Amy Luers supplemented this question with an important challenge: ‘how do we bring the analog world of yesterday together with the digital age of tomorrow, so that we leave no one behind?’.

Other questions focused on good reporting practices among countries under the UNFCCC. Harro Van Asselt highlighted a number of positive experiences and lessons shared among communities of countries involved in climate reporting, but also noted the ‘unrealised potential under the Paris Agreement’, when it comes to learning among countries. Questions also focused on country rankings in the Climate Transparency Adherence Indices, and the methodology used to generate these, which Romain Weikmans further elaborated upon.

A final set of questions focused on whether there are synergies or trade-offs between the different rationales to embrace climate transparency referred to in Aarti Gupta’s opening presentation. Gupta noted a skewing towards a marketization rationale for the embrace of climate transparency, especially in the context of carbon markets. This manifests itself, for example, in a focus on country reporting of climate actions that are measurable and quantifiable, at the expense of more intangible or harder to measure actions relating to adaptation or climate resilience. She also noted that current forms of transparency do not necessarily facilitate comparison of climate performance among key actors, as the information to facilitate such comparison is either not available or not publicly accessible.

In concluding remarks, Gupta noted that the advent of radical climate transparency is rapidly becoming ‘the new frontier’ in research, and posed a number of intriguing questions related to this type of transparency. Is missing data the main hurdle preventing ambitious climate action? How will knowing more in real-time about greenhouse emissions help concretely to drive climate action? To what use will this real-time information be put and by whom? She ended by emphasizing the need for further study of the assumption that transparency is fundamental to ambitious collective and individual climate action. It is this assumption, and related aspects, that the four-year TRANSGOV project will examine. The link to the recording of launch session of the TRANSGOV project is forthcoming.

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