Negotiating transparency behind closed doors - an ironically ill-suited approach for ongoing climate negotiations

Written with Wael Hmaidan, Director of the Climate Action Network International, @whmaidan @CanIntl

Last week in Bonn, the UN climate secretariat convened 196 national governments to consider how specific aspects of the Paris Climate Agreement will be undertaken in each country. The meeting was expected to shape the rules that will ensure transparency around future actions taken to address climate change. Yet, representatives from civil society and research institutions with expertise on transparency and monitoring of actions were denied access to these discussions. The officers presiding over these transparency discussions have opted instead to hold the meeting behind closed doors. Civil society organisations have been left wondering if meeting participants realize that this tragically ironic decision threatens the spirit of partnership that is the foundation of the climate pact.

The Paris Agreement signaled a new era for international climate policies. Since binding targets and the threat of potential sanctions for laggards failed to prevent dangerous climate change, governments decided to bet instead on collective trust as the engine for increased ambition.

2 Keys to Unlocking Climate Ambition

The Paris Agreement thus seeks to increase support for necessary climate policies by showcasing the positive actions implemented by national governments worldwide and by the multitude of actors contributing to cutting emissions. To do so, it relies on two key approaches.

Transparency Is a Prerequisite for Delivering on the Paris Agreement
Transparency Is a Prerequisite for Delivering on the Paris Agreement

First, it seeks to promote transparency for climate actions and to visibilize support provided to other countries as a way to strengthen trust among all relevant actors. If governments and the public have confidence that other nations are delivering on their respective promises, domestic political support for action should increase. A transparent framework for climate action would ensure that early movers see their leadership rewarded. With effective scrutiny broadcast widely, other governments would be deterred from delaying action. Transparency is thus a key to unlock increased commitments from governments over time.

Second, through the Paris Agreement, governments also agreed to better recognize the important role that non-state actors have in combating climate change. From municipalities reducing emissions rapidly and researchers developing solutions for a zero carbon future to communities taking grassroots action and businesses cutting ties with the fossil fuels industry, non-state actors can and do complement national policies, thus increasing the pace of the decarbonization of our economies. The Marrakesh Partnership for Climate Action launched at the most recent UN climate conference seeks to galvanize the mobilization of these forces.

The precise role that the Paris Agreement will play in shaping future climate action remains however to be defined. Much of the impact that the agreement will have in guiding governmental actions will depend on the set of rules that should be adopted next year and that will provide more clarity on what each key provision of the agreement means in practice.

Civil Society Denied Access to Ongoing Negotiations

The UN meeting which took place last week in Bonn, Germany, constitutes one of the milestones in this process. Representatives from over 100 governments worked on the rules, which will define how climate action can occur transparently to ensure there is an open understanding of the extent to which each government is on track to meet its own commitments.

Civil society organizations and research institutions had hoped that this event, as well as follow-up meetings later this year, could play an important role in guaranteeing the full realization of this vision established in the Paris Agreement.

But the officers in charge of the negotiation process decided otherwise, decreeing that the presence of any representative from the public would interfere with the objective of the meeting – that is promoting transparent cooperation on climate action. This ironic decision, particularly if it is replicated in future meetings, threatens to both erode the role of transparency and trust in relation to the implementation of the climate agreement and to undermine the broad partnership that governments sought to create with civil society and other non-state actors to address climate change.

Negotiations related to transparency of climate action were held behind closed doors in Bonn, civil society being denied acce
Negotiations related to transparency of climate action were held behind closed doors in Bonn, civil society being denied access.

Non-governmental representatives, including experts from national and international NGOs, from local and regional governments and from academic institutions, could have not only offered additional expertise to support the discussions, but also provided a level of public accountability to ensure that the rules under development fully reflect the Paris Agreement’s provisions. Non-governmental experts also have a key role to play in monitoring the amount of emissions reductions achieved at the local and national level and the amount of financial support provided to promote action in other countries. Excluding them from the process of defining the rules for these reporting obligations will only undermine the quality of the technical discussions, limit the robustness of the resulting decisions, and undermine mutual understanding between governmental and non-governmental actors.

Changing Tack At the Next Meeting

In many regions of the world, the space for civil society is shrinking as authoritative governments undermine the role played by independent organizations to promote socially and environmentally just policies. The international community must not allow the UN climate process to reinforce these exclusionary practices. On the contrary, it must guarantee that UN processes remain true to the ideals of transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability that are the bedrock of the organization.

Civil society organizations must now rely on national delegations to question this closed-door policy and to call for a truly transparent and inclusive process in order to ensure that the Paris Agreement actually promotes trust among governments and between governmental and non-governmental actors. If transparency is still the backbone of the Paris Agreement, civil society and non-governmental actors must be invited to participate in the next round of thematic discussions, which will be focused on adaptation, at the beginning of May, and all subsequent ones. Such an invitation would send a strong signal about the importance of transparency and resume a more constructive partnership with all relevant actors.

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