UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon presided over a meeting to discuss implementation of the Paris Climate Accord with John Kerry & other signatories. Photo: A Katz / Shutterstock
Transparency about countries’ targets and actions plays a crucial role in the Paris Climate Agreement. But Wageningen professor Aarti Gupta cautions against expecting too much from transparency. “We need to stop striving for as much transparency as possible, and push for meaningful action.”
Climate change is an urgent and politically complex, global problem, with technological and legal aspects. But rather than being put off by this, Aarti Gupta relishes the challenge of researching it. She is a professor of Global Environmental Governance at Wageningen University & Research, and an interdisciplinary researcher on politics, the law and international relations at the Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK). Gupta wants to find out, for example, what international politics can do in the effort to resolve global climate problems — and what role transparency can play.
No binding climate actions
Her starting point is the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, a worldwide agreement between countries to tackle global warming. The agreement would have been the ideal opportunity to lay down binding climate actions, but such obligations are precisely what is missing. “It was too controversial politically to impose legally binding targets, such as for CO₂ emissions. These goals are therefore determined nationally and are voluntary in nature. The only thing the countries could agree on is that they need to be transparent about these goals and their achievement.”
What countries are willing to be transparent about is determined by political forces
The Paris Agreement puts a lot of emphasis on improving reporting of CO₂ emissions and far less on reporting on climate adaptation. Photo: Shutterstock
The underlying notion is that transparency will encourage action. This is the idea that if the Netherlands knows the rest of the world is watching, it will set more ambitious targets and make more of an effort to achieve them. What is more, if countries are aware of each other’s plans they can be confident that they are not alone in taking action and that all other countries are working equally hard on the problem. But are these assumptions correct? Gupta emphasizes that it may not work this way in practice. “In global climate action, the emphasis is largely on transparency because we could not agree on the politically difficult questions, such as which actions are most urgent and who needs to act.” That is why she and her research group are now examining the actual effects of transparency.
Contributing 0.1 per cent
Her research shows that what countries are willing to be transparent about is largely determined by political forces. “Transparency requirements don’t always focus on the aspects that matter the most. Countries may prefer to report on topics that are least controversial politically. They would rather be transparent about what they do well than about the goals they fail to achieve.” The Paris Agreement, for example, puts a lot of emphasis on improving reporting of CO₂ emissions and far less on reporting of climate adaptation or the transfer of funds from developed countries to developing countries. This may help to explain the lack of transparency among developing countries. Many do not have the reporting infrastructure needed to keep track of their greenhouse gas emissions, with information on total amounts and the sectors responsible for emissions. “The Paris Agreement focuses on improving that infrastructure. But for small countries that perhaps only contribute 0.1 per cent to global emissions, it may make more sense to report mainly on what financing they need for climate actions. But that element is not part of the mandatory reporting.”
Another limitation of the transparency approach is that many actions are hard to quantify. Take the effort a country puts into adaptation — improving how well it can cope with the consequences of climate change. Adaptation is a key category of climate action but it is difficult to measure. As a result, a lot of time and money is spent on figuring out how to report on this rather than on the actual measures. “It is a problem if reporting takes priority over what really needs to be done.”
French president Francois Hollande held a press conference with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon after signing of the Paris Climate Accord. Photo: A Katz / Shutterstock
What is more, there is no requirement for transparency in the reports about crucial factors contributing to climate change such as the subsidies countries give to fossil fuels. “Instead of making such harmful activities the target of transparency, the Paris Agreement focuses its attention elsewhere, for example on getting a small country like Fiji to improve its reporting on carbon emissions. Yet while climate change is having a serious impact on Fiji, there is no mandatory reporting required on the extent of the damage suffered.” In other words, while increasingly detailed reports are being produced on certain topics, these reports may also divert attention from the real issues at stake. “Transparency is limited to things that all countries can agree on and that all countries find palatable to report on.”
To find out whether transparency encourages climate action or in fact acts as an obstacle, Gupta’s first step was to see how transparent countries are in practice. Do they produce reports, and if so what do they report on? She found that countries differed considerably in the approach and content. That made it difficult to find a causal link between transparency and climate action. “For example, there is no shared definition for climate finance provided by developed countries to developing countries. This means each country can use whatever definition it wants. So you can’t get a coherent picture of the funding provided by developed countries from these transparency reports.”
Transparency is often limited to things that countries find palatable to report on
Does Gupta never get discouraged by smokescreens and distractions from the actions actually needed to tackle climate change, when we are all facing such a huge impending disaster? Not at the moment, she says, as a lot can be achieved in a short time if the situation is urgent enough. “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that countries can and will invest large sums of money to tackle a crisis. Apparently, that sense of urgency is lacking for climate change, so we get stuck in endless reports, calls for more data and discussions about ever greater transparency. However, what we urgently need is for developed countries to drastically reduce their emissions in line with Paris temperature targets, while also providing large sums of money to developing countries to help them to act and adapt.”
Gupta is under no illusion that her research will lead to changes in the short term. “Changing the politics is not that easy. The first and most important ingredient for change is to raise awareness of the issues. Let's take a step back and ask ourselves if our assumptions about transparency are correct.” She herself is helping raise awareness by publishing articles in journals that are read by policymakers. What is more, she is active in policy networks with NGOs, think tanks and other researchers, where she can make sure her research findings are taken into account in the development of transparency requirements within new climate policy.
Concrete climate actions were taken off the agenda in the Paris Agreement for political reasons
Fiji was severely hit by Tropical Cyclone Winston in February 2016, and is thus severely affected by climate change. Photo: Shutterstock
Fortunately, the time is ripe for the professor’s insights. By 2024, all countries that are party to the Paris Agreement must submit improved transparency reports. This gives an opportunity to put the effectiveness of transparency on the agenda. There is also increasing interest in the concept of ‘radical transparency’. An example is Climate Trace, an initiative launched in 2021 by the tech firms Google and Amazon and others, which aims to monitor global emissions of CO₂ in near real time via satellites. “Such radical transparency does not take into account what countries do or don’t want to be transparent about. This may result in novel data. It is exciting to see what actions this data could trigger and from whom.” So is there hope? Gupta is cautiously optimistic. “My point is not that countries are intentionally misrepresenting the situation or hiding specific actions. It's just that in the Paris Agreement, concrete, mandatory climate targets and policies were taken off the agenda for political reasons. That is why the focus has shifted to maximizing transparency about the voluntary commitments. But does that really help us to move in the right direction? We need to stop aiming for maximum transparency and start pushing for meaningful action.”
Read more about Aarti Gupta’s research project on transparency
Read more about the research of the Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research