New research out: assessing state compliance with multilateral climate transparency requirements

In a recent scientific publication for the journal Climate Policy, Romain Weikmans and Aarti Gupta study an essential question about the relationship between transparency and climate ambition, namely whether countries adhere to the mandatory transparency requirements of the UNFCCC. By studying the expert reviews and analyses that the UNFCCC provides about country transparency reports, Weikmans and Gupta generate a set of ‘Transparency Adherence Indices’ that synthesize the nature and extent of developed and developing country engagement with the UNFCCC’s reporting requirements. Their findings point to an interesting hypothesis: could it be that, rather than transparency stimulating ambition, ambition stimulates more transparency? If this is the case, does transparency follow, rather than shape, political developments?

Here are the authors key policy insights:

  • The UNFCCC and its 2015 Paris Agreement call for ever greater climate transparency from all countries.  
  • We develop ‘Transparency Adherence Indices’ that reveal frequency of engagement and adherence to reporting requirements of both developed and developing countries. 
  • Our analysis shows very high levels of participation in transparency arrangements by developed country Parties, with the exceptions of Ukraine and the United States of America.
  • The level of participation of developing country Parties is relatively low, especially among Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States. 
  • Further research to explain the range of observed adherence patterns is important, in light of the Paris Agreement’s requirements for enhanced transparency from all.  
  • The assumed link between enhanced transparency and climate action needs further analysis. 

The research article is fully open access and can be found here. A blog post that summarizes the article’s main messages can be found here.

Transparency Adherence Indices: A first step in assessing country compliance with global climate transparency requirements

This blog post is based on the recently published article in Climate Policy by Romain Weikmans & Aarti Gupta

One of the few legally binding obligations of the 2015 Paris Agreement is for countries to be transparent to each other about what they are doing with regard to climate change. This can include sharing information about domestic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to adapt to climate change. But the call for transparency is not new to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Since 1992, countries that have ratified this international treaty have to regularly communicate how they are implementing it, with requirements in place regarding what information is to be reported, by whom, how and when.

Transparency or climate ambition: what comes first?

Yet what transformative effects does such transparency generate? Many academics and policymakers assume that increased transparency is necessary to build trust, enhance accountability and ultimately stimulate ambitious climate action from all countries in this global climate governance context. Yet, these assumed links between transparency, accountability, trust and ambition have not been thoroughly interrogated nor empirically documented. It is therefore unclear whether transparency actually fosters such desired political developments; or if it is perhaps even the other way around. An intriguing hypothesis is that those who are already more ambitious in their actions and intentions are more prone to be transparent.

The relationship between transparency and climate action is thus crucial and timely to examine further. Yet we know very little currently about the extent to which countries are even complying with UNFCCC transparency requirements. This is why we undertake one of the first systematic assessments of the nature and extent of country engagement with current UNFCCC transparency arrangements, in an article just published in Climate Policy entitled “Assessing state compliance with multilateral climate transparency requirements: ‘Transparency Adherence Indices’ and their research and policy implications.”

To what extent are countries complying with global climate transparency requirements?

Our focus is on the transparency arrangements agreed by countries in 2010 and being implemented since 2014. These require countries to generate biennial (update) reports, which are subject to an UNFCCC-coordinated technical expert review or analysis. Drawing on the outputs of these technical expert reports, we generate ‘Transparency Adherence Indices’ in our article. These synthesize the nature and extent of developed and developing country engagement in UNFCCC transparency arrangements and adherence to reporting requirements. We also identify a research and policy agenda to help explain observed patterns of adherence.

Finding 1: Developed countries, selectively transparent

Our findings reveal wide variations in adherence to mandatory UNFCCC reporting requirements, and no clear general pattern of improvement since 2014. Specifically, the Transparency Adherence Index for developed countries shows Finland leading in adherence to mandatory UNFCCC reporting requirements, while the United States appears last on this list, primarily because it did not submit its third Biennial Report, due during the Trump administration’s tenure. In addition, Turkey, Estonia, Czech Republic, Romania, and Lithuania lead in transparency adherence within a sub-group of developed countries with economies in transition. The Russian Federation occupies the 12th position out of a total of 20 countries on this list of countries with economies in transition, with Ukraine appearing last because it has submitted only one biennial report thus far.

Further trends for all developed countries reveal that reporting requirements on greenhouse gas emissions are on average adhered to the most, with countries struggling to adhere to reporting requirements on achieving mitigation targets, and even more so, on support provided to developing countries, both highly salient categories of climate-relevant actions in this multilateral context. These findings thus raise compelling questions regarding not only what technical challenges but also what political dynamics help to explain these adherence patterns.

Finding II: Developing countries, very transparent, hardly transparent

With regard to transparency adherence patterns among developing countries, our analysis finds that the extent of participation of this group of countries in UNFCCC transparency arrangements is relatively low, especially for Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States, who are permitted discretion in the timing and scope of reporting.

Several more specific findings are worth mentioning:

First, seven out of a list of twenty developing countries with the largest greenhouse gas emissions (in 2017) had not submitted even one Biennial Update Report, as of February 2020 (i.e., more than four years after the suggested deadline). Also striking is that South Africa, which has consistently voiced support for UNFCCC transparency arrangements in international climate negotiations, shows relatively low adherence to transparency requirements over time.

Second, some developing country reports are assessed as having attained full (100%) adherence to certain transparency requirements, as per the methodology relied upon by UNFCCC teams of technical experts. This too raises various salient questions: what might 100% adherence signify? Does it signal adequate capacities in data availability and information generation within a country, with no need for further improvement? How meaningful is such an assessment; and are the most important categories of information being generated and shared?

Third, developing countries adhere more to reporting requirements relating to greenhouse gas inventories rather than mitigation actions, as do developed countries. Reporting requirements relating to adaptation actions and to financial support received are not mandatory, and therefore were excluded from our analysis of adherence here. Yet this signals an important question for these global arrangements, in terms of categories of information being prioritized herein.

Conclusion: Adherence patterns help ‘shine a light’ on the assumed role of transparency

The findings noted above all merit further empirical scrutiny. Our ‘Transparency Adherence Indices’ also lead us to advance an intriguing hypothesis, as we noted above: that a country exhibiting more climate ambition, both in terms of actions and intentions, may well perform better in adhering to transparency requirements. Instead of transparency stimulating greater ambition, greater ambition may result in greater adherence to transparency.

If so, does transparency follow rather than shape political developments? Continued research on this topic is very timely, given that the 2015 Paris Agreement calls for an ‘enhanced transparency framework’ to be implemented, starting in 2024. This is intended to build on lessons learned from engagement with current UNFCCC transparency arrangements. If so, the Adherence Indices we generate in our article provide vital context for assessing the continued relevance of ever-expanding UNFCCC climate transparency requirements. They shed light not only on what engagement looks like currently; but also raise the important question of what constitutes meaningful adherence in the first instance, and to realize what climate policy goals.

New research article on face-to-face account-giving in multilateral climate transparency processes

A recent article by Aarti Gupta, Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen, Nila Kamil, Amy Ching and Nadia Bernaz in the journal Climate Policy analyses how novel, face-to-face, account-giving processes for developing countries, referred to as ‘Facilitative Sharing of Views’, are functioning within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and what these processes help to shed light on. It analyses the nature and scope of the ‘answerability’ being generated within these novel processes, including what state-to-state questioning and responses focus on, and what ‘performing’ accountability in this manner delivers within multilateral climate politics. The authors find that a limited number of countries actively question each other within the FSV process, with a primary focus on sharing information about the technical and institutional challenges of establishing domestic ‘measuring, reporting and verification’ systems and, to lesser extent, mitigation actions. Less attention is given to reporting on support. A key aim is to facilitate learning, both from the process and from each other. Much effort is expended on legitimizing the FSV process in anticipation of its continuation in adapted form under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Here are their key policy insights:

  • We analyse developing country engagement in novel face-to-face account-giving processes under the UNFCCC
  • Analysis of four sessions of the ‘Facilitative Sharing of Views’ reveals a focus on horizontal peer-to-peer learning
  • States question each other more on GHG emission inventories and domestic MRV systems and less on mitigation and support
  • We find that limited time and capacity to engage, one-off questioning rather than a dialogue, and lack of recommended follow-up actions risks generating ‘ritualistic’ answerability
  • Such account-giving also intentionally sidesteps contentious issues such as responsibility for ambitious and fair climate action but may still help to build trust
  • Much effort is expended on ‘naming and praising’ participant countries and legitimizing the process

The article is fully open access and can be found here.

Global Momentum for Transparency? A new Initiative for the Enhanced Transparency Framework

This year has been an unusual year. While the Covid-19 pandemic has forced countries around the globe into lock-downs and led to a major economic downturn, 2020 was meant to be the year for crucial global climate action. Countries that are Parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement were supposed to communicate new or updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), put forward long-term low emission development strategies, and reach an agreement on the modalities of future carbon markets, at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow, originally scheduled for December 2020. However, as the global community is coping with a second wave of Covid-19, only twenty-two countries, representing 8.6% of global emissions, have submitted an updated or second NDC (ClimateWatch 2020) and COP 26 has been postponed to 2021. Instead, the United Nations Framework Convention in Climate Change (UNFCCC) organized virtual “Climate Dialogues” from 23 November to 4 December 2020, to advance work under its subsidiary bodies and the COP agenda as well as to showcase progress made in 2020.

In the opening ceremony for the Climate Dialogues, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa launched a new initiative called the “Initiative of Universal Participation in the Enhanced Transparency Framework (ETF)”. What is striking here is the word universal. The Enhanced Transparency Framework calls for countries to report on their greenhouse gas emissions and national climate actions as laid out in Article 13 of the Paris Agreement. In contrast to earlier UNFCCC rules, the ETF applies to all countries and thus abolishes former differentiation between Annex I (developed) and non-Annex I (developing) countries in transparency-related obligations. Yet it also provides for flexibilities in reporting from developing countries, and grants least developed countries and small island developing states discretion regarding when to report. In fact, Article 13 does not mention universal or universal participation, nor do the 41 pages of its implementation guidelines (called modalities, procedures and guidelines). So, what is meant by universal participation?

All hands on deck for transparency?

As the UNFCCC Secretariat sees it, the objective of this new transparency initiative is to “bring together countries, support organizations, the business community, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders to realize the benefits of the strengthened transparency requirements under the Paris Agreement’s enhanced transparency framework (ETF)” (UNFCCC, 2020a). Further, it is stated here that “for the Paris Agreement to deliver on its objectives, universal participation in the ETF is required”. Thus, this initiative aims to bring “all actors together under a common banner”.

This ‘all- hands-on-deck’ thinking is usually only used in the context of actual climate actions by non-state actors such as businesses, cities and regions, to signify the importance of everyone acting to address climate change. Applying this thinking to transparency is novel, at least in the context of reporting under the UNFCCC, which is and always has been a requirement applicable to states. While many businesses, investors and cities around the globe do report on their greenhouse gas emissions and reductions, through various portals such as the CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project), the C40 city network and the Covenant of Mayors, the integration of this data into national GHG inventories is difficult due to issues such as additionality and double-counting of emissions.

Momentum for transparency or momentum for climate action?

One of the new initiative’s main goals is “to generate global momentum towards enhancing the understanding of the importance and benefits of transparent climate-relevant data and information for the implementation of the Paris Agreement”. Yet one might wonder whether it is really global momentum for transparency that is needed or rather global momentum for ambitious climate action and support for climate action. As the recent UNEP Emissions Gap Report found, current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by Parties of the Paris Agreement “remain seriously inadequate to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement and would lead to a temperature increase of at least 3oC by the end of the century” (UNEP, 2020).

The initiative’s focus on data and information as a pre-condition for climate action and implementation is very much aligned with the ETF itself, which aims “to build mutual trust and confidence and to promote effective implementation” of the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC, 2015, emphasis added). But countries have already been reporting on their greenhouse gas emissions and their mitigation and other climate actions for years, in the context of Biennial Reports and Biennial Update Reports. As such, one would assume that they would be aware of the much vaunted “importance and benefits of transparent climate-relevant data and information”. However, the latest NDCs that countries have submitted are not sufficient to get the world on track towards the temperature goals in the Paris Agreement. This discrepancy between the rhetoric around transparency and the reality of non-ambitious action is striking. It demonstrates that data and information are not a panacea, and that the process of using information for effective policy-making is far from straight-forward. Under the ETF, countries are required to track their own progress in meeting their NDCs through indicators, but obligations around tracking an NDC will not make up for an unambitious NDC. Furthermore, a large majority of NDCs from developing countries are conditional on financial support from developed countries, another political axis of conflict in the multilateral climate policy context that is tied up in complex ways with reporting obligations.

The same positive view on the potential of data and information has been included in another goal of this new, ‘universal ETF’ initiative, namely to “increase political awareness and buy-in at the highest national level for an evidence-based national decision-making process with a broad base of stakeholder engagement”. But national decision-making processes are political processes with many competing agendas and are rarely based solely on scientific data. Furthermore, a broad base of stakeholder engagement and high-political buy-in are more relevant in the context of taking actual climate action, rather than the transparency thereof.

Welcome initiative or duplication of efforts?

Other goals of this new initiative include to “mobilize support needed for building up and strengthening domestic capacities for Parties and other stakeholders, including robust and sustainable institutional arrangements for climate-relevant data” and “facilitate enhanced access to support to developing country Parties by offering a platform for wider stakeholder engagement, including North-South and South-South cooperation”. However, there are already various initiatives in place to support developing countries in enhancing their institutional and technical capacities, most notably the “Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency (CBIT)”. The CBIT was established at COP 21 in Paris, and as of November 2020, more than 60 countries are preparing or implementing CBIT projects. As originally stated in the CBIT Programming Directions, the goal of this initiative is to support a minimum of 100 countries “that have articulated their capacity needs and priorities for transparency” (GEF, 2016, p. 8). However, future funding of the CBIT is uncertain and most of its resources have already been programmed. As such, if there is indeed interest in supporting developing countries to be more transparent, mobilizing support for continuing the CBIT would be more sensible.

Another prominent effort is the “Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT)”, established by the Ministries of Environment of Germany and Italy, the ClimateWorks and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundations. ICAT supports 40 countries in enhancing their transparency capacities, a number of which are also supported by CBIT. However, ICAT is set to end next year unless it is prolonged and receives additional funding. Other transparency support efforts targeted at developing countries include the “Consultative Group of Experts” under the UNFCCC, the “Partnership for Transparency in the Paris Agreement” and the “Global Support Programme for National Communications for National Communications and Biennial Update Reports”. The latter initiative will merge with the CBIT Global Coordination Platform into a Global Transparency Platform. Other prominent initiatives also have transparency elements, such as the NDC Partnership. Furthermore, the UNFCCC also supports countries in transparency-related matters through its Regional Collaboration Centers. With all of these different initiatives, projects and efforts to strengthen countries’ transparency capacities already in place, one wonders whether another transparency initiative will add value to the existing ones, and if and how these can be meaningfully integrated without duplicating efforts. Strikingly, the scarce information currently available on this new transparency initiative does not mention the others, not even the CBIT.

In the context of mobilizing support for developing countries to become more transparent, the initiative intends, furthermore, to provide a platform “to tailor the support to [developing countries] needs”. It will be interesting to see how this tailored support will take shape, and if and how it will differ from other support currently provided. Particularly important is how the needs of developing countries will be elicited and whether these needs will only cover mandatory reporting elements (GHG inventory and NDC tracking) of the ETF. The actual (transparency) needs of a country might differ from these mandatory reporting elements (e.g., countries might wish to prioritize reporting on adaptation, for example).

The announcement relating to this new initiative states in addition that it is “open to all interested stakeholders” including Parties, international organizations and non-state actors such as NGOs and businesses. Facilitating exchange and consolidating the interests, needs and inputs of these wide-ranging stakeholder groups under one initiative will, without doubt, be challenging. A similar approach has been attempted by the “Paris Committee on Capacity-building (PCCB)” which established a network in the Spring of 2020. This network is open to any stakeholder in the space of climate and capacity, and already has 216 member organizations, ranging from NGOs to research institutions to UN agencies.  This PCCB is to “become a leveraging platform to enhance coherence and coordination of climate-related capacity-building initiatives and activities” (UNFCCC 2020b, emphasis added). One can imagine that the new transparency initiative will become a similar kind of ‘leveraging platform’.

Interestingly, the PCCB itself and its network also conduct transparency activities. The PCCB meeting in June 2020 for instance focused on transparency and a number of the PCCB Network members work on climate transparency, such as the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute and the Global Support Programme. Thus, here too, could potentially be overlap with the new transparency initiative. Whether this new transparency initiative will become as large as the PCCB network remains to be seen but there is a risk of overcrowding, making it difficult to achieve meaningful results. As such, the initiative should also outline its expected results and clearly define indicators to measure its progress to not risk becoming an “empty shell”.

Problematizing the Turn to Ever More Transparency

This initiative was established in support of the ETF and is thus inevitably optimistic of the potential for transparency to foster greater accountability, mutual trust, climate action and ambition. The initiative reiterates this optimism by stating that “stakeholders can learn from each other and build mutual trust and confidence that will unleash long-term transformational development and ambitious climate action”. However, the link between transparency and enhanced trust or between transparency and enhanced climate ambition are far from evident, and remain to be studied. The TRANSGOV project will examine precisely these links in assessing, systematically and empirically and for the first time, the transformative potential of transparency in global climate governance. It will address the question: can and does transparency actually help to realize these prescribed effects?

Very little information is yet available about this latest transparency-related UNFCCC initiative. It is important, given the ever-growing attention that transparency is now receiving, to learn more about how it came about in the first place. Were Parties to the Paris Agreement asking for this specifically? With so many other initiatives and efforts in place that focus on transparency, even within the UNFCCC itself, one cannot help but wonder whether the global community needs another transparency initiative, and one that again shines a light on facilitating developing country transparency. This is especially questionable in light of a recent report by the OECD (2020), which finds that USD 78.9 billion of climate finance were provided and mobilized in 2018, which is still a long way to go to achieving the goal of USD 100 billion climate finance annually starting in 2020. Yet, even reaching the goal of USD 100 billion will be far from sufficient to implement the conditional elements of developing countries’ NDCs. At the same time, it is strongly contested how the USD 100 billion are actually counted (see Weikmans, Roberts & Robinson, 2020).

Equally worrying are the results of the recent “Production Gap Report” by the Stockholm Environment Institute and others, which show that governments have committed far more Covid-19 recovery funds to fossil fuels than to clean energy (SEI, IISD, ODI, E3G & UNEP, 2020). So why is so much support and attention being given to transparency of action rather than to action itself, especially action from Annex I countries, and especially in the midst and coming aftermath of a global pandemic where climate action might not be prioritized in countries?

In sum, while all new initiatives and efforts that keep climate change on the global agenda are to be lauded, the ever-growing focus on enhancing transparency of countries’ greenhouse gas emissions and national actions can risk becoming a distraction from the “the elephant in the room”, namely the taking of climate actions by all, and the need for support for climate actions being taken by developing countries. A number of scholars have already pointed out this potential for distraction-through-transparency, notably Gupta and van Asselt (2019) and Klinsky and Gupta (2019). This and further assumptions related to the role of climate transparency in global climate governance will be examined in the four-year TRANSGOV project.

Read more about the different research themes of TRANSGOV here.

Sources:

ClimateWatch (2020). 2020 NDC Tracker (website). Available at: https://www.climatewatchdata.org/2020-ndc-tracker

GEF (2016). Programming Directions for the Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency. Available at: https://www.thegef.org/sites/default/files/council-meeting-documents/EN_GEF.C.50.06_CBIT_Programming_Directions_0.pdf

OECD (2020). Climate Finance Provided and Mobilised by Developed Countries in 2013-18. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/environment/climate-finance-provided-and-mobilised-by-developed-countries-in-2013-18-f0773d55-en.htm

SEI, IISD, ODI, E3G & UNEP (2020). The Production Gap (website). Available at http://productiongap.org/

UNEP (2020). Emissions Gap Report 2020. Available at: https://www.unenvironment.org/emissions-gap-report-2020

UNFCCC (2015). Paris Agreement. Available at: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_paris_agreement.pdf

UNFCCC (2020a). Initiative of Universal Participation in the ETF (website). Available at: https://unfccc.int/initiative-of-universal-participation-in-the-etf

UNFCCC (2020b). Launch of the PCCB Network (website). Available at: https://unfccc.int/event/launch-of-the-pccb-network

New book on accountability mechanisms in International Development Financing

Susan Park, Professor of Global Governance at the University of Sydney, has just published a new book on the mechanisms by which multilateral development banks can be held accountable for their social and environmental impacts.

In ‘Environmental Recourse at the Multilateral Development Banks’, Professor Park outlines how international development financing has sometimes had “dramatic and irreversible effects” on local communities. In reaction to this, NGOs and environmental activists have called for ways of holding multilateral development banks accountable for these impacts. The book examines these so-called “international grievance mechanisms”, whether and how they are used, and what effects they have. Her results give a mixed picture:

While the book demonstrates how the processes work in a generally just manner, it also shows that the problem-solving function can only work if it is in the interests of claimants, the Bank, the government, and/or the project sponsor (for non-sovereign loans). This leads to a high rate of unsuccessful outcomes from communities attempting to engage directly with the Banks and project sponsors.

Susan Park, Can We Uphold Environmental Rights in International Development?

For more detailed summary of this important publication on the transparency and accountability of actions in international development finance, please see Professor Park’s Blogpost on the subject. The book itself is freely accessible online until November 24th at Cambridge Elements.

Capacity building for climate transparency in times of Corona – Window of opportunity or business as usual?

With new and more stringent climate transparency requirements established under the 2015 Paris Agreement for all countries, many activities and projects are now underway to build capacities of developing countries – in other words to get developing countries ‘ready’ for these new requirements. These capacity-building for transparency projects span a wide array of activities, including national workshops, trainings and stakeholder consultations, and even regional and international activities.

The new Paris Agreement transparency requirements enter into force in 2024, where all countries, developed and developing countries alike, will have to submit their first Biennial Transparency Reports. The building and institutionalisation of capacities usually is a long-term process, so the less than four years remaining to get developing countries ‘ready’ is not much on a capacity-building related time scale.

Added to an already very limited timeframe is the challenge of dealing with a global and persistent Covid-19 pandemic, which puts on hold many of the capacity-building activities for transparency. Workshops, trainings and meetings are no longer possible in their original form and some capacity building initiatives are switching to online activities. The Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) for example hosted a virtual workshop to provide technical training to high-level Vietnamese officials about progress tracking of Vietnam’s nationally determined contribution. The global meeting of countries and organizations that are part of the Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency (CBIT) has also been postponed to an unknown date. These CBIT global meetings usually take place on an annual basis and serve, among others, as a place for countries to exchange lessons learned and experiences from their transparency-generating efforts. CBIT project proposals are often developed with the support from international consultants, who undertake missions to the respective country to conduct stakeholder consultations. These country missions and stakeholder consultations are not possible in their original form anymore and there is a risk that the views of different stakeholders are not insufficiently elicited. Even the Consultative Group of Experts (CGE), a group of transparency experts under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, postponed two of its in-person regional hands-on training workshops to November and December 2020. With the numbers of Covid-19 infections rising again globally, it is very likely that these trainings cannot take place. In this case, the Consultative Group of Experts will also consider virtual workshops.

So, what does this global pandemic mean for transparency-related capacity building of developing countries? Will this pandemic delay the ‘getting ready’ process for developing countries to participate in enhanced climate transparency requirements? If so, what does this mean for global climate governance and the global response to climate change? Will the global community adjust the transparency requirements for developing countries or maybe a subgroup of developing countries? Many such questions come to mind and there are many unknowns. However, as the saying goes, every crisis is an opportunity in disguise and this might be the time to rethink capacity-building approaches for transparency. International consultants flying around the world for short country missions, and climate change focal points travelling to one- or two-day transparency workshops and trainings could be a ‘thing of the past’.

Capacity-building for transparency has existed in one form or other for more than 20 years but outcomes seem to be limited. Support was often provided in an ad-hoc and short-term manner, and often involved the use of international consultants with limited capacities retained in the country. While things have moved away from the very ad-hoc nature of transparency-related capacity-building with the adoption of the Paris Agreement, many of the old structures and approaches to capacity-building remain the same. Under the Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency (CBIT) for instance, project proposals are often prepared by international consultants, who undertake short country missions to conduct stakeholder consultations. However, in times of Covid-19, these country missions are no longer possible, as is the case for the CBIT project in Thailand. While information can be gathered online and while there is usually also a national consultant involved, this begs the question whether it is sensible that international consultants prepare these project proposals for developing countries in the first place. In addition to the preparation of the proposals, the implementation of the actual project activities also often involves international organisations and consultants.

In a world where excessive or unnecessary flying is no longer responsible, both with regards to the pandemic and the large climate impact, a shift away from international to national consultants and institutions for delivering capacity-building for transparency should be pursued. This is in line with a long-standing call from developing countries, researchers and civil society and international organisations to localize capacity-building efforts and build capacities in a more holistic and sustainable manner. The utilization of local universities as permanent institutions in a country for instance is advocated by Least Developed Countries. The CBIT project for Lao PDR does indeed include the University of Vientiane for the delivery of a short course, however this is more the exception than the norm among the more than 50 CBIT projects globally.

Local institutions and organisations should not only be involved in the implementation of a project but also lead the development of the proposals themselves, rather than leaving this to international consultants. After all, these proposals are not ‘rocket science’ and do not even require strong expertise relating to transparency. They do however require proper consultations with the climate change department and other national stakeholders. A local institution such as a university is clearly better equipped to undertake these consultations and understand the local context and language better than an international consultant.

Transparency-related capacity building under the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) is also provided by international organisations and consultants, all of which are based in the global North. While these projects also often involve local consultants, the international organisations provide the major bulk of the capacity-building work and usually conduct several missions to the respective countries. Even though trainings and workshops can be conducted virtually now, one still has to ask whether a local institution would not be in a better position to conduct trainings and maybe even in a physical and COVID-safe setting. And while trainings and workshops in themselves have often been criticised for their limited effectiveness in building capacities, one might ask how effective virtual trainings and workshops actually are. Maybe they provide a new and more interactive space but maybe they actually hinder real engagement from participants. Time will tell how these new virtual deliveries of capacity-building actually work out, which is why ex-ante and ex-post assessments of the impacts of capacity building projects are needed, now more than ever. However, with very few assessments of capacities built available from before the pandemic and earlier projects, real comparisons between the impacts of capacity-building under normal circumstances and under a pandemic will likely be difficult to draw.

There is no question that this pandemic has made us rethink and change many engrained practices that were earlier considered difficult to change, such as flying to meetings, attending conferences and working from the office, just to name a few. While not all changes are necessarily positive, this pandemic undeniably also offers a window of opportunity to rethink and reshape current approaches to building the climate transparency-generating capacities of developing countries to include a more local and holistic approach. Whether this window of opportunity will be seized remains to be seen but the 20-year history of capacity-building for transparency unfortunately does not hold out much hope: changes to capacity building approaches have been very limited, the structures and providers of capacity-building support have remained largely the same and most of the capacity-building is still targeted towards compliance with international reporting requirements. So, we remain pessimistic about whether the global pandemic is able to set long called-for reform in motion, but even small changes can be positive. And who knows: maybe the global climate community finally starts asking itself whether all this capacity-building for climate transparency from all developing countries is necessary and what it concretely delivers.

The TRANSGOV project studies the political effects of capacity building for climate transparency, as one of its key research themes. Read more here. And watch this space for an agenda-setting research article on this topic, coming soon!

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.

Launch event at the Earth System Governance Virtual Forum

On September 17th, 14-15:30 CET, the TRANSGOV project is hosting a launch event at the Earth System Governance Virtual Forum. We are proud to welcome a selection of high-profile researchers and policy experts who will present in this semi-plenary on the Transformative Potential of Transparency in Global Climate Governance.

The aims of this session are twofold:
(a) To share information about ongoing and newly launched research and policy initiatives that assess the transformative potential of transparency in global climate governance
(b) To interact with a broad interdisciplinary audience to assess relevance of the topic for diverse research and policy communities, explore synergies, and identify novel opportunities for collaboration

The Virtual Forum is free of charge. To register, please click here.

Montreal Statement on Sustainability in the Digital Age

The recently launched multi-stakeholder global initiative ‘Sustainability in the Digital Age‘ led by TRANSGOV global associate Dr. Amy Luers, has just published its Montreal Statement, highlighting the interconnected agendas of building a climate-safe and equitable world and building a trusted, inclusive, and just digital world. 

In its Digital Disruptions for Sustainability (D^2S) Agenda, the initiative also highlights the role of unprecedented transparency in climate and sustainability governance. The TRANSGOV project engages with this aspect and contributes a critical research lens into widely held assumptions about the transformative potential of transparency as a governance mechanism.

In the Agenda, TRANSGOV’s Principal Investigator, Aarti Gupta, offers the following reflection:

“Many are optimistic about the role of unprecedented levels of transparency in securing more accountable and effective global sustainability governance. Yet, research suggests that transparency may not be all that it promises to be.

For example, transparency is often assumed to be essential to trust, however, the opposite might well hold: there might need to be trust first, in order to have meaningful transparency.

Thus it is critical to research not only the design of transparency systems, but also the normative and political contexts within which such systems are deployed, as these shape whether and under what conditions transparency may realize its transformative potential in global sustainability governance”.

TRANSGOV will continue to closely work with the Digitalization and Sustainability Initiative in furthering joint research and policy-relevant interests.

March 1, 2020: Welcoming our new PhD researchers!

On March 1st, Robert Bergsvik and Susanne Konrad, joined the project as PhD researchers.

Robert will focus on the political economy of transparency in global climate politics, and the link between transparency, accountability and trust. He will also explore the role of ‘radical transparency’, i.e. how the global climate policy process engages with real-time information generated by new digital technologies and non-state actors.

Susanne will focus on the scope and political effects of proliferating capacity building initiatives for climate transparency, exploring the experiences of developing countries, emerging economies as well as donors. We warmly welcome the two into the TRANSGOV project!