Heat waves, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, forest fires, tsunamis, floods, droughts – the list goes on. Our planet is heating up and we are starting to see irreversible consequences.
Globally, people are becoming more aware of the importance and urgency of climate change mitigation. As the world gets warmer, the risks of food shortages, infectious diseases, floods, and extreme heat become more real for humans everywhere. There is an understanding of needing to be responsible for the well-being of future generations. We know what we have to do – cooperate as people and nations to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C. The real challenge lies with this unavoidable cooperation: How can we make sure that both international and domestic political institutions are held accountable for their (in)actions?
This structure creates two key issues. First, the overreliance on the virtue of transparency has put the reporting of the progress made, and not the actual achievement of said progress, at the heart of current climate change mitigation efforts. This may distract from advancing more substantial accountability mechanisms; those that focus more firmly on efforts in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than, for example, the metrics used in the reports.
And a second, more obvious shortcoming of the Paris agreement accountability mechanism, is that there is no entity to obstruct a given country’s incentive to “free ride”. In the absence of a body to be held accountable to, nations tend to neglect NDC objectives, as there seems to be no immediate benefit from climate action. This and the shortcomings of the transparency-based approach discussed earlier are possibly the reasons for lagging climate action: most countries did not sufficiently implement their 2015 pledges in time before COP26.
Thus, perhaps by design, it is impossible to address these limitations of international climate agreements. Fortunately for concerned citizens, domestic accountability mechanisms do exist – and their importance for mitigation of a global problem like climate change is widely recognised. The domestic setting seems to be better suited for the establishment of a ‘public accountability system’ – a system, where governing bodies are legally answerable to some community, like their electorate.
However, an issue that arises is the self-interest of the parties that governments are accountable to. The electorate in democracies, so far, has proven to be a bad agent for the interests of future generations. Recent elections in the US and Germany, where climate change policy was a cornerstone of campaigns, showed precisely that. For example, despite winning a spot in the ruling coalition, the ambitions of Germany’s Green party have been sidelined by the priorities of their partners. Plans to increase carbon prices, curb the excavation of coal in the future, and pledges for higher infrastructure investment have not been high on the coalition agenda.
Those efforts are not to be dismissed. Still, one might wonder if these detours from more conventional channels of policymaking are really suitable for making efficient progress towards current emission targets. After all, there is still hope to revise accountability practices of formal international and domestic governance to accommodate for the shortcomings. One thing is clear: even if uncomfortable, acknowledging the accountability deadlock itself is crucial for successfully mitigating climate change.