An assessment of capacity building for climate transparency under the UNFCCC

This blog post is based on the recently published article in Climate Policy by Susanne Konrad, Max van Deursen & Aarti Gupta

Elaborate transparency systems are now at the core of the 2015 Paris Agreement, with the assumption that this will enhance accountability, trust, and greater climate policy ambition. With transparency becoming ever more central, much attention is being devoted to building the capacity of developing countries to participate in UNFCCC transparency arrangements. Yet what might capacity building deliver and for whom? And (how) does capacity-building steer the kind of transparency to be generated? To address those questions, the authors conducted a three-part review into transparency-related capacity-building, comprising a literature review, an analysis of country submissions as well as a review of two major capacity-building initiatives.

A growing ecosystem of capacity building initiatives

The Paris Agreement adopted strong language by noting that capacity building support for transparency shall be provided on a continuous basis, signaling a change from previous ad hoc capacity-building support. Moreover, a dedicated fund called the Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency (CBIT) was established in 2015 to channel resources from developed countries to capacity building efforts in developing countries. A complex ecosystem of initiatives has emerged providing various types of support to build transparency capacities in developing countries. While a comprehensive mapping of the capacity building landscape is beyond the scope of this blogpost, prominent initiatives include the Partnership on Transparency in the Paris Agreement (PATPA) and Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT). Other initiatives and actors include, among other, the Consultative Group of Experts (CGE), Caribbean Cooperative MRV Hub (CCMRVH), the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) Partnership and the Partnership for Market Readiness, and. We have examined the two initiatives CBIT and ICAT more closely.

Neutral ‘means of implementation’ or generating political effects?

The next years will be crucial for the way in which transparency provisions become institutionalized

Capacity building is often framed as a neutral ‘means of implementation, i.e., a tool to achieve already established and widely shared ends. However, capacity building operates in the political context of climate governance. In particular, questions over ‘who should make what visible, to whom, and why’ are highly politically salient and remain contested within global climate politics. In theory, the scope and extent of transparency to be generated by countries has been decided upon in multilateral negotiations through the Paris Agreement and its “Enhanced Transparency Framework” provisions. However, the interpretation and implementation of these provisions can go in various directions. Moreover, the transparency provisions themselves are the outcome of political compromise and may not be equally fit for all countries’ circumstances. The next years will be crucial for the way in which transparency provisions become institutionalized, particularly in developing countries, and transparency-related capacity building initiatives may steer this process. In particular, they may steer the scope and extent of transparency generated. We draw out these steering effects by examining the ‘what, how and who’ of capacity building efforts.

What capacities? Mitigation reporting prioritized

Capacity building is a broad term that allows for many activities to go under its name. Capacities may stretch all the way from capacity of an individual to use a certain software to the capacity of entire public administration systems to coherently implement policy. In the context of the UNFCCC, the thematic focus of capacity building for transparency is of importance. Capacity building could focus on reporting on greenhouse gas emissions, mitigation, adaptation, support, and loss and damage. The formal transparency provisions establish that reporting on greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation actions is mandatory while adaptation and support (received and needed) are voluntary categories of reporting.

Developing countries have voiced through submissions to the UNFCCC that they find reporting on all of the above categories important, while developed countries tend to emphasize GHG inventory and mitigation reporting.

The two large capacity building initiatives, CBIT and ICAT, in theory allow for capacity building on all thematic areas but in practice prioritize building capacities for mitigation and GHG inventory reporting, even in least developed countries and small island developing states.

How are capacities built? The ad hoc project-based approach lingers on

Several scholars and practitioners alike have criticized past transparency-related capacity building efforts as being too consultant-driven, project-based and short-term. As a result, capacities were not properly built or retained in countries upon completion of a project or report. With the Paris Agreement making biennial reporting mandatory for developing countries, a general narrative has emerged that capacity building support should transition from the prior ad hoc arrangements to structural support packages, addressing individual and institutional capacities alike. Yet, in practice, the main capacity building initiatives, CBIT and ICAT, essentially still operate on a project-based approach, where countries have to go through new application cycles each time they want to set up a new project after one project concludes. Nevertheless, developing countries do appreciate the CBIT as a source of multilateral funding as opposed to, or in addition to, bilateral arrangements, also given its large size.

Who builds whose capacities?

A key question is whether transparency-related capacity building efforts should focus on those countries with least capacities or whether other (strategic) considerations should be taken into account in selecting countries to receive support. CBIT is open to all developing countries to apply for funding, and has allocated a substantial amount of funding support to projects in least developed countries and small island developing states. ICAT adopts strategic criteria in the selection of projects, such as countries’ greenhouse gas emissions and leadership potential.

CBIT and ICAT fund and facilitate capacity building projects but these projects are often executed in collaboration with organisations such as UNDP, UNEP DTU Partnership, and the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute. While working closely with the developed countries, these organisations could steer the transparency-related capacity-building efforts in certain directions.  A key challenge here is to balance the priorities and expertise of these agencies with the context-specific priorities and expertise at the national level.

One size fits all?

One important insight is that the scope and mandate of the Paris Agreement’s transparency framework is driving a focus on GHG inventories and mitigation actions in capacity-building projects across the globe. This is clearly linked to the mandatory nature of these reporting obligations. While this may be unsurprising, it does establish that the politically negotiated scope of the UNFCCC’s mandatory transparency requirements is indeed being institutionalized and diffused to the country-level via capacity-building initiatives.

Some strands of scholarly literature do critically interrogate whether the GHG inventory and mitigation focus within the Paris Agreement’s transparency mechanism is, or should be, a priority for many developing countries, as compared to reporting on adaptation, loss and damage, and/or support needed and received. While the need for capacity building to report on adaptation or support is not entirely missing from existing practices, it is more marginal than expected, suggesting that the voluntary nature of reporting on these aspects plays a role in such marginalization. To some extent, this is inevitable, given scarce resources and the need to deploy these to comply, first and foremost, with mandatory UNFCCC reporting obligations. In practice, however, this privileges the generation of specific types of transparency, with potential consequences for the climate actions prioritized by countries. It can result in generating detailed greenhouse gas inventories within countries with low emissions and even lower capacities to mitigate, at the expense of building up reporting and assessment capacities on climate vulnerability, adaptation and loss and damage.


Our analysis suggests that, instead of being merely a ‘neutral means of implementation’, capacity building has the potential to influence highly politically salient decisions about ‘who should make what visible, to whom, and why’ in the contested context of global climate politics. As critical scholarship highlights, transparency’s role in furthering trust, accountability and climate ambition is widely assumed but currently more asserted than empirically demonstrated. In addition, such diverse governance ends – furthering trust, accountability, and climate ambition – have quite distinct implications for the scope of transparency to be generated and from whom, and thus also for associated capacity-building efforts.

There is a need to continue to empirically assess the steering effects of capacity-building initiatives that support ever-greater levels of mitigation-related reporting from developing countries, while other politically salient categories – such as reporting on adaptation, support needed and received, or loss and damage – may go underprioritized. As such, we also need to critically interrogate the still widespread assumption that ever greater transparency from all is vital to  effectively addressing the climate challenge.

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