Opinion

Accountability, Policy and Environmental Governance

We probed just what constitutes accountability for the myriad of actors engaged in governing the global environment.

Every year thousands of people descend on cities around the world to negotiate, cajole, plead and bargain over multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) comprised of conventions, protocols, rules and norms. The aim is to improve the negative impact we have on our natural environment – to mitigate our impact on the Earth’s climate, water, land, and species. For example, the next (23rd) UNFCCC climate change conference of the parties is to be held in Bonn in May 2017, which seeks to advance states commitments to the Paris Agreement which came into force on 4 November 2016. Bit by bit, states, prompted by non-government organisations, citizens and forward thinking businesses, are trying to halt worsening environmental devastation.

The Accountability in Global Environmental Governance network is a Task Force of the Earth Systems Governance research network, the largest network of social scientists examining environmental governance globally. The aim of our Task Force is three-fold:

  1. To create a coherent theoretical framework to investigate the nature of accountability in global environmental governance;
  2. To examine whether accountability gaps exist across environmental cases within the framework; and
  3. To identify whether these gaps constitute a governance problem and can be ameliorated.

In December 2015 we brought together scholars of the field of global environmental governance in a workshop hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute to interrogate what accountability there is, if at all, in current multilateral environmental agreements. The workshop covered both global and local level environmental impacts. It considered whether investigating accountability: whether actors should be held answerable and responsible for their actions, was an important part of the puzzle for improving the governance mechanisms of the global environment.

We argue that it should be. The outcomes of our workshop are now available. In the Special Edition for the Review of Policy Research we probed just what constitutes accountability for the myriad of actors engaged in governing the global environment. Contributions by Jonathan Kuyper, Karin Backstrand and Heike Schroeder argue that the various non-state actors from environmental non-government organisations to labour and Indigenous groups seek to hold each other and their representative of their constituency to account through political strategies such as “exit, voice and loyalty” for how they engage with the UNFCCC process. Oscar Widerberg and Philipp Pattberg have accumulated data on how corporate actors seek to identify that they are accountable for their carbon emissions under a variety of voluntary schemes that fit under the climate change regime. They highlight how little accountability there is to hold such actors to account for reducing emissions despite the proliferation of schemes to which they adhere.[1] While Craig Johnson reviews the structure of the UNFCCC’s loss and damage mechanism in terms of responsibility, fairness and liability.

Tracing how actors can be held answerable and responsible for governing the global environment is not easy and the findings of such investigations may not be what we want to hear. Yet it is vital to probe whether the structures that we help create are working as intended. Multilateral environmental agreements are not magic bullets. Nor are they the only option. But they have been created as “work arounds” for long entrenched international politics. Politics over rights and responsibilities, over sovereignty and development, over the public imagination and technical capacity. Of course this is not the only way we govern the global environment. States impact and reach on the natural environment and its capacity to change is also open to investigation. David Rosenberg interrogates how powerful donor states like the United States seek to address environmental problems through their foreign development assistance programs. In doing so the short-hand of market based contracts limits the type of accountability of offer for holding actors responsible and answerable for creating sustainable development through development aid. Non-state actors also come under scrutiny as Cristina Balboa teases out the contractual accountability that environmental non-government organisations face which limits their ability to meet their environmental goals. Hampering developing states ability to address large-scale environmental problems within their own territories are institutions that may be perverted or blocked. Teresa Kramarz, David Cossolo and Alejandro Rossi examine the difficulties of holding domestic actors to account for atrocious environmental and social conditions even when actors like the judiciary attempting to extend their mandate to address the problem that the legislative cannot. Analyzing accountability in all of these cases reveals the accountability gaps in global environmental governance, highlighting exactly where our attention needs to be focused to fix it.

The Special Issue of  Accountability, Policy and Environmental Governance will be open access for the month of February 2017. To access, Click here.

[1] Oscar Wilderberg and Philipp Pattberg. ‘Accountability Challenges in the Transnational Regime Complex for Climate Change.’ Special Issue: Accountability, Policy and Environmental GovernanceReview of Policy Research 34, 1 (2017), 68–87.


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. Susan has two current research projects. The first, examines the rise, spread and efficacy of accountability mechanisms that have been created by Multilateral Development Banks in order to redress the negative impacts of development projects on local communities. Susan has consulted for the Asian Development Bank on improving outreach for their Accountability Mechanism. The second research project on Accountability in Global Environmental Governance (AGEG) with Teresa Kramarz (University of Toronto). She is co-coordinator for the AGEG Task Force, which is part of the Earth Systems Governance Network: http://www.earthsystemgovernance.org/AGEG