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The Threat of Climate Change Could Be a Major Opportunity

La amenaza del cambio climático podría ser una gran oportunidad

Delaine McCullough|

The response to global climate change may be the biggest opportunity for the foreseeable future to direct public funds to poor and vulnerable communities. In December 2015, 195 countries joined the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, committing to dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“mitigation”) and protecting communities and vulnerable people from the impacts of climate change (“adaptation”). By the deadline of 7 October 2016, enough countries had ratified the agreement to allow it to enter into force as an international treaty aiming “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”

As countries prepare for comprehensive climate action, they are also increasing funding needed to implement actions toward meeting their commitments under the Paris Agreement. Estimates of the new funds that will be mobilized globally for an adequate response to climate change amount to hundreds of billions of dollars per year. If such a mobilization proves successful, it would generate a massive flow of funds into countries to address the impacts of climate change and make major inroads into addressing poverty and inequality.

What does this mean for the Open Government Partnership and those seeking to increase engagement between government and civil society, strengthen democratic governance, and increase accountability?

Although funds will be coming from both international and domestic private and public sources, much of the climate change efforts will be managed by national and subnational governments through their domestic budgeting systems. To ensure that the scarce resources invested in climate-related activities are spent most effectively and reach the intended beneficiaries — the people and communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change — with minimum leakages, transparency and accountability will be essential.

For instance, in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda, which ripped through the Philippines in 2013 and devastated families and communities, Social Watch Philippines (SWP) investigated how public funds were used in the reconstruction and rehabilitation effort in several communities. After successfully calling on the Department of Budget Management to release information on the reconstruction effort that it had not yet released, SWP conducted an expenditure tracking survey that found that by November 2015 only 8 percent of the 14,000 resettlement units that were targeted to be built by March 2016 had actually been built and were occupied.  Through careful analysis and external pressure, actions like those of SWP to identify and publicize the failure of government to meet the critical needs of those whose lives are turned upside down by the impacts of climate change have huge potential to ensure that public funds for such purposes are used effectively.    

What do we know about climate change finance accountability?

In late 2016 the International Budget Partnership (IBP) partnered with the UNDP’s Governance of Climate Change Finance Team to assess the climate change finance accountability ecosystems (IBP’s term for how state and non-state actors interact to ensure that public funds are managed effectively and with accountability) in four countries: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and the Philippines. The assessments found that formal accountability systems, and accountability ecosystems, in the four countries for climate change finance are at best emerging.

There are common weaknesses in the systems across countries, including:

  • a lack of national- and local-level transparency on the funds available to address climate change and how they are used;
  • limited opportunities for citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) to participate in climate-related planning, budgeting, and monitoring on the ground;
  • and capacity issues hindering effective oversight from civil society, media, and formal oversight institutions.  

There were also signs that a lack of country ownership of donor-driven projects threatened the effective use of the related resources. It is important to note that these weaknesses are generally not specific to climate change, but instead a function of the public finance management and accountability ecosystem overall.

However, while strengthening weak core systems can often take several years, there are examples in each of the countries that point to work that CSOs already undertake with good impact on accountability, even if they do not have good access to formal processes or to information. These include the SWP’s tracking of typhoon reconstruction expenditures in the Philippines, analyses to identify the amount the government invests in climate change adaptation in India and Nepal, and CSOs helping local governments to draft project proposals for government adaptation funds in the Philippines.

Cracking open closing contexts?

IBP, OGP, and other proponents of open government are increasingly concerned about the disturbing trend we’re seeing toward more reactionary and intolerant politics. There are a number of factors related to action on climate change finance that point to its potential as an opening in this trend of closing space for public engagement and accountability.

First, the stakes of governments failing to use climate change funds effectively are high, with potentially devastating loss of life and massive economic costs. Those countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, even those like Bangladesh that have seriously constrained most avenues of public scrutiny and engagement, will face increasing pressure from internal and external actors to open up and increase accountability.

Another important factor is that the global effort to address climate change is embedded in a formal process and structure established through an international treaty in which signatory countries (143 as of 17 April 2017) commit to reaching specified mitigation and adaptation goals within a framework of transparency and accountability. In the countries IBP assessed, these commitments were translating into efforts, or at least legal frameworks, to make some climate change-related finance information available and to engage CSOs in planning processes, but there is still a long way to go. Engaging early on to ensure adequate transparency and public engagement as countries are developing their systems and processes has the potential to pay off in the long run.

Within countries, climate finance accountability work has the potential to drive governments to open budget processes to civic engagement and ensure newly available resources reach those most in need. First, because of the cross-cutting nature of climate change action, particularly on adaptation, the issue has brought in a wide range of CSOs to engage with, and pressure when necessary, government, including environmental groups, governance/transparency groups, and social movements. Second, for true climate change finance accountability, information and opportunities for participation must be available at the national and subnational level, at which projects and programs will be implemented. Given the urgency of the need to act on climate change, combined with the cross-cutting nature of the issue, there is the potential for accountability efforts around climate-related finance to increase momentum on broader public finance accountability and open governance.

This post is drawn from a new collection of essays on civil society’s response to the trend of closing government from the International Budget Partnership, “That’s How the Light Gets In”: Making Change in Closing Political Environments

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