Public Participation in Open Government Reforms Advances Climate Action

The 2015 Paris Agreement was heralded as a breakthrough in international climate diplomacy, resulting in a shared commitment to limit global temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius and step up efforts to adapt to its impacts, while giving countries the flexibility to develop their own Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to meet this goal. Some countries, such as China and India, have aggressively pursued low-carbon development through major investments in wind and solar power. Other governments have gone even further, adopting legislation on radical carbon emissions targets; the Netherlands, for instance, recently introduced a draft bill to cut emissions from 1990 levels by 49 percent by 2030 and by 95 percent by 2050. But other countries are falling behind, especially the United States after its decision to initiate the withdrawal process in 2017.

Sustaining Political Commitments

The reality is that it’s politically challenging to sustain progress on climate action across election cycles, and despite linkages between climate action and sustainable development, too many policymakers sideline mitigation and adaptation as separate policy issues to address after jobs, security, health and education. Decision-makers often perceive the political returns on climate action to be limited, as the benefits of reducing emissions today will be reaped by the politicians of tomorrow. It is only those countries in which people are experiencing the most immediate impacts of climate change, such as Bangladesh and the Pacific Island states, where this is a dominant policy concern.

However, this political dynamic can shift when domestic climate action coalitions gain momentum, broaden their base and find ways to amplify their voices. Engaging people in decisions on climate action can be a powerful means of deepening political commitment to reform, and many citizens around the world share a growing concern about the future impact of climate change. For example, a European Union survey in 2017 found that 92 percent of Europeans view climate change as a serious problem. This concern is especially marked among young people: a May 2018 Gallup poll revealed that 70 percent of Americans aged between 18 and 34 are worried about climate change.

Many people are already finding ways to increase energy efficiency, adopt more sustainable modes of transportation or shift to low-carbon diets to reduce their climate footprints. But they feel like their individual actions aren’t adding up, and they expect their governments to do take on more ambitious climate commitments and devote the necessary financial resources to support a low-carbon transition.

Fostering Public Participation in Climate Policy through OGP

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) offers three sets of opportunities to engage citizens in shaping climate policy commitments, making them more politically popular and sustainable in the long term. These include: shaping government action on climate by co-creating Action Plan (AP) commitments, developing AP commitments that embed the principle of participation in policy deliberation, and creating platforms that foster public access to data and information.

The OGP co-creation process provides a unique opportunity to link open government reforms to national climate processes – to translate public sentiment on climate change into active participation in climate decision-making. For instance, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Israel engaged their climate change authorities in the development of climate commitments in 2017. This move has helped improve coherence between OGP AP commitments and national climate priorities, while also exposing climate authorities to governance expertise and good practices through the Partnership. At the same time, a more diverse cross-section of civil society had the ability to weigh in on decision-making and strengthen both the substance and ambition of climate commitments.

In total, 11 countries included a commitment on climate action in their NAPs in 2016 and 2017, and most benefited from concerted civil society engagement, resulting in improved design and greater ambition. In Costa Rica, for example, civil society drove a commitment that combines data disclosure with public participation and, for the first time in OGP, explicitly addresses climate finance information. In this commitment, Costa Rica pledges to build a climate data disclosure system, which includes climate finance information, in consultation with the newly-created Citizens Consultative Council on Climate Change.

Other countries have put participation at the heart of their OGP commitments. For example, in its 2016-2018 AP, Kenya committed to developing a transparent, multi-stakeholder process for operationalizing its Climate Change Act of 2016. France pledged to bolster citizen involvement in revising its climate change adaptation and Sustainable Development Goals action plans in its 2018-2020 AP, while Sierra Leone has gone further than many governments in transparently disclosing climate change information in accessible, open data formats. In the country’s 2016-18 AP, the government pledges to build on this progress, creating a central database on its NDC commitments to enable citizens to track progress on implementation.

Seizing the Moment

These examples point to the significant potential that countries have to deepen political commitment to climate change by creating space for citizens to influence the design of AP climate commitments using the co-creation principle that lies at the heart of OGP. Yet commitments to date often focus on making data more accessible rather than triggering transformational change in climate policies. To move faster further, we need to share positive lessons of public participation in framing AP climate commitments and find ways of engaging a broader set of civil society organizations in the OGP co-creation process, including groups working at the forefront of climate action.