How the Paris Agreement will bring transparency to climate action

COP 21 in Paris (Image Courtesy UNFCCC Via Flickr).

A central issue in the Paris climate talks was strengthening “transparency” requirements to hold countries accountable for their commitments. This means closer scrutiny of steps taken by developing countries, in particular, and many are understandably nervous.

But in presentations in the sidelines of the negotiations, two developing countries – Singapore and Chile – said their early experiences with the existing transparency system were less onerous than they’d feared. Their key message: You learn by doing.

The existing transparency system, established in 2010 in Cancún, consists of two parallel processes: one for developed countries, and a less stringent one for developing countries. Under both processes, countries submit biennial reports describing the steps they’re taking to meet their emission goals. These reports are then considered by technical experts and by other parties.

The Paris Agreement calls for replacing these processes with a single system requiring all countries to work toward the same standards of transparency and accountability.

Although the agreement promises support to help developing countries build the capacity to meet these standards, many worry the new requirements will be burdensome. Others are wary of being judged harshly, particularly when they have had little experience closely tracking their emissions or undergoing international review.

So far under the current system, 16 developing countries have submitted biennial reports describing the efforts they are taking to limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 

At a side event in Paris organized by the U.N. climate secretariat, Chile and Singapore shared their experiences going through the first half of the International Consultation and Assessment (ICA) process, which reviews countries’ reports. Starting it, they said, was “scary,” but going through it was surprisingly productive and fruitful.

Here is what they’ve learned:

Engagement benefits domestic processes. Both countries realized how they could improve the communication and cooperation between and among their domestic agencies, and better prioritize resources.

The secretariat is a capacity-building resource. Instead of a critic, the secretariat proved to be a willing and available resource, clarifying guidelines and actively assisting parties at their request. Moreover, it has been accommodating. In response to logistical and cost challenges, it offers several ways to have the required technical dialogue identifying the capacity building needs of reporting parties.  Secretariat officials confessed that they, too, are learning by doing.

but so are other developing and developed countries. Singapore highlighted the valuable experience gained by participating in the review process for developed countries, called International Assessment and Review (IAR). Their experts participated in training workshops and the technical reviews of developed country biennial reports, and asked questions during the multilateral assessment of developed countries, the third round of which concluded in Paris. These experiences helped Singapore put together its report.

As the outreach session showed, we are all learning from one another by doing. Engagement in reporting and review can effectively build capacity. Support and flexibility for developing countries already exists, and improvements can and will continue to be made. Movement to a common transparency system should not induce fear of the unknown, but reassure parties that their best efforts will be recognized and amplified.