Making Environmental Issues Accountable

Recognising accountability is vital to understand how global governance can better tackle environmental problems

The setting is Paris December 2015, and 196 states agreed to new targets for reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere as a means of decelerating rising temperatures. This is one of the many international environmental agreements in existence, one created to address one of the world’s most intractable problems. There are numerous reasons for how we got to this – concerted action on behalf of scientists, activists, citizens and states, as well as forward thinking businesses pushing for cooperation to address a global environmental problem. Over the last 70 years, we have increasingly turned to international mechanisms to bind the hands of governments in order to address pressing collective action problems like climate change.

At the same time but several thousand kilometres away at the University of Sydney, the Accountability of Global Environmental Governance workshop was also held. Here a group of Australian and international scholars sought to unpack what it means to hold those governing the global environment to account. We frequently turn to international institutions like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to provide the scaffolding for concerted action. As we know, international environmental agreements, along with the organisations built to advance them and assist states, are limited to the mandates and resources states provide. In comparison to other aspects of international politics it is clear that there has been an explosion of governing arrangements to address environmental problems at the global level. There are now over 1200 multilateral environmental agreements like the UNFCCC and the Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) for example. While we place our hope in these multilateral processes, they are of course not the only game in town.

Since the 1990s there has been a dramatic proliferation of non-government led initiatives: creating standards for businesses, industries and sectors covering forest and marine products, as well as cocoa, coffee, and flowers. The roles of non-government organisations (NGOs) and activists have been vital for pushing both states and non-state actors to be held responsible and answerable for their environmental impact. The establishment of voluntary codes of conduct and certification processes now dominates many industries which states condoned. Meanwhile, environmental NGOs themselves are also under scrutiny for their actions despite their moral standing in ‘speaking’ for the environment.

We established the Accountability in Global Environmental Governance research network in 2013 to identify who was undertaking research into whether any of these actors: states, the private sector or NGOs, were being held responsible and answerable for their actions in governing the global environment. In 2014 in Toronto, we brought together twenty scholars from all around the world to discover the research being done in this area and to interrogate how people understood accountability. For many it was clear: not much was being done and we all thought we knew what accountability was but were unclear as to how to use it across the broad spectrum of global environmental initiatives. In New Orleans in 2015, we would bring together researchers from various parts of the world to probe the types of private, public and voluntary initiatives described above.

It was then in Sydney in December 2015, we would take our work a step further: providing a theoretical framework for analysing work and addressing both the global and local impacts of global environmental governance. It was rich in detail and vital for our understanding of whether or not we can hold those governing the global environment to account. Work was presented on how the private sector seeks to be accountable for their carbon emissions under the umbrella of the UNFCCC despite tremendous hurdles for measuring accounting. We reviewed work seeking to probe the cradle to grave policies of corporations seeking to establish truly sustainable practices. We unpacked the work being done by states in an attempt to hold each other to account under the aegis of the Paris agreement of the UNFCCC, and whether NGOs in the UNFCCC process are holding each other to account. As befitting our geographic location in the Asia Pacific, three papers were presented on Cambodia: a state grappling with, in many ways, typical development needs and environmental trade-offs. In gaining a fine-grained empirical analysis of how global initiatives play out at the local level, the points at which they are unaccountable, to whom, for what and how, become clear. As our research develops, we seek to identify whether these accountability gaps can be overcome. What our work has demonstrated to date is that accountability can provide an important entry point for making global environmental governance more effective.

Susan Park is an Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Sydney, a Senior Research Fellow of the Earth Systems Governance (ESG), and an affiliated Faculty member of the Munk School’s Environmental Governance Lab at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on how state and non-state actors use processes of formal and informal influence to make international organizations, particularly the Multilateral Development Banks, greener and more accountable.

Image: Terry Brooks