Opening the Black Box of Transparency in Multilateral Climate Governance

by Harro van Asselt and Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb

Transparency has become a buzzword of the 21st century, including in the context of global governance. International regimes governing a wide array of societal challenges, from arms control to trade, and human rights to the environment, have created formal and informal processes for reporting by states and the subsequent review of such reports by international bodies.

The core idea behind these transparency arrangements is that the information provided by states, and the vetting of this information by international bodies, can shed light on the performance of states against their international commitments. This is assumed to help build trust among states and thereby form the basis for reciprocal actions. Reporting and review of policies through transparency arrangements is expected to assist states themselves, allowing them to better understand the merits and costs of their policies, and potentially leading to learning over time. Moreover, transparency arrangements are assumed to empower domestic constituencies by making accessible information on how national governments at home and abroad are performing.

Transparency, in the form of regular reporting by nations on their climate action followed by expert and multilateral peer review, has become a backbone of the international climate change regime. Reporting and review have been part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since its inception in 1992. Initially, these transparency arrangements focused primarily on developed countries, but developing countries have gradually taken on increasingly far-reaching commitments in terms of reporting and review.

Transparency has been afforded a particularly important role in assessing progress with the implementation and achievement of Parties’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. The hope is that the Agreement’s ‘enhanced transparency framework’ can help promote accountability for climate action (or the lack thereof), and offer incentives for increasing climate ambition. Moreover, the transparency mechanism will feed into the global stocktake, which will assess on a five-yearly basis Parties’ collective progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. By shining a light on what countries do individually it is hoped that transparency can indicate whether the level of collective effort undertaken is adequate to address climate change. 

Notwithstanding these high expectations, we know surprisingly little about whether and how such transparency arrangements bring about effects such as increased ambition, stronger policies, or greater accountability. This is where our new project, TRANSCLIM (‘Transformative Transparency? Assessing the Effects of Reporting and Review in the International Climate Change Regime’), comes in. The three-year research project (2020-2023) is funded by the Academy of Finland, and will involve collaboration with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, as well as with internationally recognised experts in the areas of transparency and climate governance.

The TRANSCLIM project will go beyond existing research by focusing on the different pathways through which transparency arrangements can lead to improved international and national climate governance. For instance, does regular reporting by government officials indeed lead to learning over time? This is often assumed but rarely shown. Do national governments take the process of multilateral peer review under the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement seriously? And how and to what ends do non-governmental stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, think tanks, parliamentarians, auditors and judges, use the information produced through the transparency arrangements?

The project will examine these questions in the context of four country case studies in both the global South and the global North. These case studies will be the first of their kind, shedding light not only on the procedural effects of transparency, for instance on the rates of public participation, informed choice and accountability, but also on the substantive effects. In the context of the UNFCCC this can be understood as having an outcome on reducing emissions and addressing the effects of climate change. Very little is currently known about the substantive effects of transparency arrangements. The empirical insights gained from these studies will be linked back both to emerging critical scholarship on the role of transparency in global (environmental) governance, as well as ongoing rule development on reporting and review under the Paris Agreement.

Ultimately, this project will deliver useful insights into the function of the reporting and review system under the UNFCCC that can be applied by policymakers as they implement the enhanced transparency framework of the Paris Agreement. In addition, the project will contribute to critical transparency studies by providing a framework for examining the effects of transparency arrangements in other international regimes.

Blog editors: Yulia Yamineva and Tuula Honkonen. Contact: yulia.yamineva@uef.fi