One of the few legally binding obligations of the 2015 Paris Agreement is for countries to be transparent to each other about what they are doing with regard to climate change. This can include sharing information about domestic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to adapt to climate change. But the call for transparency is not new to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Since 1992, countries that have ratified this international treaty have to regularly communicate how they are implementing it, with requirements in place regarding what information is to be reported, by whom, how and when.

Transparency or climate ambition: what comes first?

Yet what transformative effects does such transparency generate? Many academics and policymakers assume that increased transparency is necessary to build trust, enhance accountability and ultimately stimulate ambitious climate action from all countries in this global climate governance context. Yet, these assumed links between transparency, accountability, trust and ambition have not been thoroughly interrogated nor empirically documented. It is therefore unclear whether transparency actually fosters such desired political developments; or if it is perhaps even the other way around. An intriguing hypothesis is that those who are already more ambitious in their actions and intentions are more prone to be transparent.

The relationship between transparency and climate action is thus crucial and timely to examine further. Yet we know very little currently about the extent to which countries are even complying with UNFCCC transparency requirements. This is why we undertake one of the first systematic assessments of the nature and extent of country engagement with current UNFCCC transparency arrangements, in an article just published in Climate Policy entitled “Assessing state compliance with multilateral climate transparency requirements: ‘Transparency Adherence Indices’ and their research and policy implications.”

To what extent are countries complying with global climate transparency requirements?

Our focus is on the transparency arrangements agreed by countries in 2010 and being implemented since 2014. These require countries to generate biennial (update) reports, which are  subject to an UNFCCC-coordinated technical expert review or analysis. Drawing on the outputs of these technical expert reports, we generate ‘Transparency Adherence Indices’ in our article. These synthesize the nature and extent of developed and developing country engagement in UNFCCC transparency arrangements and adherence to reporting requirements. We also identify a research and policy agenda to help explain observed patterns of adherence.

Finding 1: Developed countries, selectively transparent

Our findings reveal wide variations in adherence to mandatory UNFCCC reporting requirements, and no clear general pattern of improvement since 2014. Specifically, the Transparency Adherence Index for developed countries shows Finland leading in adherence to mandatory UNFCCC reporting requirements, while the United States appears last on this list, primarily because it did not submit its third Biennial Report, due during the Trump administration’s tenure. In addition, Turkey, Estonia, Czech Republic, Romania, and Lithuania lead in transparency adherence within a sub-group of developed countries with economies in transition. The Russian Federation occupies the 12th position out of a total of 20 countries on this list of countries with economies in transition, with Ukraine appearing last because it has submitted only one biennial report thus far.

Further trends for all developed countries reveal that reporting requirements on greenhouse gas emissions are on average adhered to the most, with countries struggling to adhere to reporting requirements on achieving mitigation targets, and even more so, on support provided to developing countries, both highly salient categories of climate-relevant actions in this multilateral context. These findings thus raise compelling questions regarding not only what technical challenges but also what political dynamics help to explain these adherence patterns.

Finding 2: Developing countries, very transparent, hardly transparent

With regard to transparency adherence patterns among developing countries, our analysis finds that the extent of participation of this group of countries in UNFCCC transparency arrangements is relatively low, especially for Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States, who are permitted discretion in the timing and scope of reporting.

Several more specific findings are worth mentioning:

First, seven out of a list of twenty developing countries with the largest greenhouse gas emissions (in 2017) had not submitted even one Biennial Update Report, as of February 2020 (i.e., more than four years after the suggested deadline). Also striking is that South Africa, which has consistently voiced support for UNFCCC transparency arrangements in international climate negotiations, shows relatively low adherence to transparency requirements over time.

Second, some developing country reports are assessed as having attained full (100%) adherence to certain transparency requirements, as per the methodology relied upon by UNFCCC teams of technical experts. This too raises various salient questions: what might 100% adherence signify? Does it signal adequate capacities in data availability and information generation within a country, with no need for further improvement? How meaningful is such an assessment; and are the most important categories of information being generated and shared?

Third, developing countries adhere more to reporting requirements relating to greenhouse gas inventories rather than mitigation actions, as do developed countries. Reporting requirements relating to adaptation actions and to financial support received are not mandatory, and therefore were excluded from our analysis of adherence here. Yet this signals an important question for these global arrangements, in terms of categories of information being prioritized herein.

Conclusion: Adherence patterns help ‘shine a light’ on the assumed role of transparency

The findings noted above all merit further empirical scrutiny. Our ‘Transparency Adherence Indices’ also lead us to advance an intriguing hypothesis, as we noted above: that a country exhibiting more climate ambition, both in terms of actions and intentions, may well perform better in adhering to transparency requirements. Instead of transparency stimulating greater ambition, greater ambition may result in greater adherence to transparency. If so, does transparency follow rather than shape political developments? Continued research on this topic is very timely, given that the 2015 Paris Agreement calls for an ‘enhanced transparency framework’ to be implemented, starting in 2024. This is intended to build on lessons learned from engagement with current UNFCCC transparency arrangements. If so, the Adherence Indices we generate in our article provide vital context for assessing the continued relevance of ever-expanding UNFCCC climate transparency requirements. They shed light not only on what engagement looks like currently; but also raise the important question of what constitutes meaningful adherence in the first instance, and to realize what climate policy goals.

Romain Weikmans is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Université Libre de Bruxelles / Free University of Brussels. His research interests center on global climate governance, with a focus on climate finance and climate transparency.
Aarti Gupta is Professor of Global Environmental Governance at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She is principal investigator of the TRANSGOV project (Transparency in Climate Governance, She has published widely on this topic, including the co-edited volume Transparency in Global Environmental Governance: Critical Perspectives (MIT Press, 2014).