What CSOs Can Do for Climate Change Accountability

Villagers prepare sand bags for flood control in India.
Villagers prepare sand bags for flood control in India.

By Richeline Mascarinas

Engaging with civil society will help the Paris agreement’s accountability mechanism become more effective.

The landmark global climate deal is nearly operational as the European Union this week backed the Paris agreement signed in December 2015. The global development community also hailed the historic display of partnership to combat climate change by the world's two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases—the US and the People’s Republic of China—which pressured other countries to follow suit, like India did last weekend.

Indeed, the movement for global climate action is progressing, but we can only push it further if there are effective accountability mechanisms. One way to strengthen these mechanisms is by boosting the participation of civil society organizations (CSOs).

The Paris agreement has yet to prove that its accountability mechanism is effective, as the mechanism ultimately rests on goodwill and shared belief in the benefits of climate action, and Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are not legally binding per se.

CSOs are key players in ensuring transparency and accountability. CSO presence in remote communities otherwise not reached by the governments and organizations gives these a better understanding of local conditions on the ground. CSOs serve as intermediaries in redress of grievances and bridges for consultations. CSOs amplify the collective call to action and accountability, and monitor implementation of projects and agreements.

In the area of climate finance, for example, CSOs are indispensable for international financial institutions to effectively operationalize their independent accountability mechanisms. Tracking finance is important, but so are mitigating and rectifying harm to communities. These mechanisms were actually established as a response to public pressure for greater transparency and accountability.

Over the years, international financial institutions have addressed the concerns of people and communities affected by their projects primarily through CSOs. ADB’s Accountability Mechanism identifies continued close relations with CSOs as key lesson in ensuring accountability. In fact, of the 25 eligible complaints received in the past 12 years, half were assisted by CSOs. Through dialogue and consultation brokered by CSOs, ADB was able to respond fairly to complaints and strengthen its projects and operations. Recognizing the importance of CSOs in its operations, ADB organizes a Civil Society Program at its Annual Meetings, and earlier this year the ADB Annual Meeting in Frankfurt, Germany included sessions on implementing ADB’s Accountability Mechanism and safeguarding climate finance.

Climate and energy transition requires governments to invest more in infrastructure and work with other sectors for additional investments and collaborative projects. The Climate Policy Initiative, in its comprehensive inventory of climate change investment, reports that investment in low-carbon and climate-resilient growth is growing, and hit $391 billion in 2014. However, according to the 2016 UN Environment Adaptation Finance Gap report, the cost of adapting to climate change could amount to $500 billion annually by 2050—4-5 times greater than previous estimates—if we fail to cut our emissions. Creating new financial mechanisms with development agencies and international financial institutions is key.

All these climate initiatives, however, will definitely fail if the monitoring, evaluation and accountability structure is weak. Even more so, international agreements on climate will also fail if safeguards for communities are not strongly adhered to. If saving everyone in this planet is the end goal of climate action, then haven’t we already failed if we harm people in the process of implementing climate projects?

Beyond the Paris agreement and succeeding milestones, governments and international bodies should work on how to better engage CSOs. As high-level parties prepare for the upcoming COP22 in Morocco, it is high time for stakeholders to push our leaders to set up an enhanced framework for CSO engagement. This will bolster a powerful accountability mechanism that will benefit everyone in the long run.