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Why Transparency and Accountability is so Important for the International Efforts on Global Warming

Jake Schmidt

Posted June 10, 2010 in Solving Global Warming

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Having a strong, credible, and transparent system for tracking greenhouse gas emissions and the actions of a country is an essential building block of the international system to address global warming.  This was a key issue in Copenhagen and almost brought down the whole meeting (as my colleague discussed here).  It was an agreement on the elements of these transparency and accountability pieces in the final hours of the Copenhagen Summit that allowed the agreement to progress (as I discussed here).  And this issue continues to be a critical issue as the negotiations head into next round in Cancun, Mexico (as I discussed here).  Those discussions started in detail here in Bonn, Germany where the next round of negotiations is occurring.  There were some very positive discussions on these provisions here in Germany (with hints of agreement on key pieces).  So why is this so important, what was agreed in Copenhagen, and what are countries proposing now?

Transparency and accountability are the foundation of any environmental system.  While there are critical political reasons in key countries to include the transparency and accountability provisions as a part of the international effort to address global warming, it is also an essential element for the environmental performance of the system.  I’ll focus on why this is important for the environmental credibility and integrity of the system.

All effective environmental systems are based on three key elements:

  1. Where are we today?  How these are done vary, but they all come down to a factual, data driven, and scientific assessment of where we are today in terms of the environmental problem we are trying to address.  For global warming, this is fundamentally about having information on the current and historic emissions of global warming pollution in the key countries.
  2. Where are we committing to go over time?  This is essentially a detailed commitment/law outlining what specific level of emissions a country is trying to achieve.  For global warming, this is a country commitment outlining the end goal they are committing to achieve (see for example, the commitments that came out of the Copenhagen Accord). 
  3. How are we doing against our environmental objective/commitment?  This is a regular, data driven assessment of where a country is over time.  Basically a continual assessment of point #1 – “where a country is today”, updated over time and compared to point #2 – “what the country committed to achieve”.
  4. Do we have confidence in these assessments? Strong environmental systems have an assessment of what the emissions levels are and how those levels are progressing over time compared to what we trying to achieve.  Different environmental systems handle these in varying ways, but a couple of cornerstones are detailed information on what went into that assessment (the data, etc), the transparency of the information (available to the public and in enough detail that people can judge for themselves the results), and some ability for outside and independent review.  Basically do we believe those assessments?  
  5. What are the implications if we assess that we are off track?  The last aspect of the system is related to the ramifications of an assessment that shows that we are “off-track” against our environmental objective – point #3 shows that we are really not meeting point #2.  What happens in that case?

Copenhagen Accord made some positive moves to improve the system.  As we’ve noted (here and here), the Copenhagen Accord agreed to a system to regularly know whether or not countries are making progress towards their commitments.  The Copenhagen Accord outlined an agreement to have:

1. Developing countries report every 2 years on their national emissions inventories and emission reduction actions based upon internationally agreed guidelines (through a process called the National Communications).

2. Reported emissions reduction actions:

 “subject to their domestic measurement, reporting and verification the result of which will be reported through their national communications every two years…they will communicate information on the implementation of their actions through National Communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected.”

Some emerging signs of agreement.  At the climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany there have been interesting formal and informal conversations on these transparency and accountability provisions.  Essentially we are beginning a discussion of how we would we make the transparency and accountability agreements in Copenhagen operational.  This comes down to a couple of key broad issues including:

  1. The frequency of measurement and reporting (how often does the reporting occur).  The “Umbrella Group” (Australia, US, Japan, New Zealand, etc.) proposed that all countries, except the least developed countries, should report full National Communications every 4-6 years, with an interim (less detailed report) every 2 years (as outline in the Copenhagen Accord).  A number of developing countries provided signals that a more frequent report would be useful, as agreed in the Copenhagen Accord.
  2. The scope of the measurement and reporting (what is in those reports).  Full National Communications contain information on a country’s emissions, their actions to reduce emissions, their adaptation needs, their technology needs, etc.  This is a pretty complete report to require every 2 years and even developed countries only report this every 4-5 years, so some countries proposed that a “National Communications Light” is developed every 2 years.  The key content of those interim reports, as proposed by some countries, would include greenhouse gas emissions and actions that countries are taking to reduce their emissions.
  3. The review provisions (how does the international consultation and analysis occur).  A major push was made in Copenhagen to have a formal review process of a country’s emissions and actions.  The Copenhagen Accord agreed to an “international consultation and analysis” of these reports, but didn’t spell out how exactly that would occur.  So there have been discussions of how those would occur.  I attended an interesting side event by the Pew Center where representatives from the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development discussed how those bodies conduct their international consultation and analysis.

On each of these issues there wasn’t firm conclusion as this is the first time that we have really dug into details of the transparency and accountability agreements reached in Copenhagen.  But I did sense less resistance than one might expect for an issue that was so controversial in Copenhagen.  In particular, country’s seemed to support the idea of more frequent reporting (every 2 years) and providing dedicated resources to support developing countries in producing these assessments (so resources aren’t a barrier to their development).  While the elements of it were agreed in Copenhagen, getting it formalized into this process can often require an extra push.  So the fact that there was limited pushback provides positive emerging signs of agreement that hopefully can be built upon. 

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We still have work to do to outline in detail how the transparency and accountability provisions will be implemented.  These are so critical to the environmental and political success of the international effort to address global warming that you can guarantee we’ll see a continued push to finalize details in Cancun, Mexico later this year.

NRDC will definitely be working to help get agreement on the details of these elements, as they are such a fundamental element of the international effort to address global warming.  After all, how can we know whether or not we are solving this challenge if we don’t know exactly where we are and how we are doing in our efforts to reduce emissions?

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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