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Why is increased transparency the solution to effective climate planning?

Manon Morel Wed, 14 October 2020

Transparency has always been regarded as an outward sign of good governance, but it is a virtue that often gets lost along the way. The reason? Transparency is a risky business: not everyone is ready to take the leap and expose themselves to scrutiny and criticism. Yet in the current context of our global climate emergency, the rewards to be gained by government transparency—at both local and national level—far outweigh the risks that come with increased scrutiny

Why is transparency needed now, more than ever?

The world is waking up to a reality where climate change is no longer a distant threat. It is well and truly here, and citizens everywhere are calling for action and asking more from governments and businesses alike. Plummeting oil prices and the increase of clean power stocks are testaments to the fact that the world is changing and responding to these demands. Shaken by the pandemic, governments have sped up and increased their commitments toward “green recoveries” and decarbonization.

While the increased number of governmental commitments is welcome and encouraged, without increased transparency and scrutiny, they remain unfulfilled promises. And it’s hard to look at these initiatives credibly when the world has failed to attain a single target to slow down the loss of the natural world for the second consecutive decade.

In a state of planetary emergency, being transparent, accountable, and precise about how we plan to tackle the climate crisis is essential to honoring the commitments we make in planning for carbon neutrality.

What choices are available for cities? What do we really mean by transparency in climate planning?

Transparency in climate action has become non-negotiable, as city governments have only two choices when it comes to climate planning. They can either:

  1. release their overall commitments (e.g. reaching carbon neutrality by 2040) and occasionally report on their progress in highly technical reports; or
  2. release their overall commitments AND make it easy for citizens and the world to follow their progress, in real time and step by step, clarifying what targets and actions are needed to reach the overall goal (e.g. targeting a 50% shift from petroleum-powered cars to an electric vehicle fleet by 2040, with corresponding actions to make charging infrastructure investments, etc.).

While both of these options render governments subject to more scrutiny and accountability, in the first scenario, citizens would hardly be aware if their municipal government was slipping behind its commitment. They would only know whether the city has been broadly successful by 2040 in 2040 on the basis of backward looking indicators. The second path makes it easier for citizens to see and engage meaningfully in the process throughout the next twenty years. In both cases, the risk of not living up to their citizens’ (and the world’s) expectations is the same, but in the second scenario, the government can be held accountable for the substance of its actions until the goal is achieved.

But in this time of planetary emergency, failure to meet goals is hardly an option. And increased transparency, as a good governance accelerator, creates a virtuous cycle that keeps local governments speeding down the best path towards their climate goal.

So, what are the benefits of increased transparency for cities in climate planning?

At first, it may be hard to see how more transparency can actually help cities reach their carbon abatement goals faster. Yet, there are many ways in which politicians can benefit from more transparency in their fight against climate change.

Transparency is a source for increased engagement at the local level

As governments increasingly disclose their goals and the processes put in place to achieve them, all parts of society will gain a deeper understanding of the shifts that need to take place. In fact, explaining why a city is doing what it is doing is crucial to catalyzing change. Like with most endeavors, resistance is minimized when the rationales for the actions are understood.

Keeping everyone in the loop—whether in businesses, in civil society, or among citizens—is likely to engender conversations, support, and most importantly, synergies. By signaling to residents that they must congregate behind one goal, citizens are likely to feel engaged and like they have a defined role to play. They can lend support, take part in the city’s initiatives, and in some cases even take ownership of certain processes themselves—thereby driving innovation and integrating necessary shifts into their daily lives that lower carbon emissions.

More transparency has its challenges; expressions of dissatisfaction or frustration are likely to occur if changes are not happening fast enough. But this kind of positive pressure often creates opportunities to propel cities faster towards their goal. In effect, more government transparency positions residents as stakeholders in the execution process, which significantly increases the likelihood of success.

At a time when citizen engagement is increasingly valued and citizen participation and assemblies are becoming a new norm, increased transparency is expected. As a city shares its victories and challenges along the way, more transparency will create a greater sense of community, a supportive environment, and can elevate trust. Who doesn’t want to live in a city that conquers its goals, one by one? Similarly, who doesn’t want to live in a city whose government is honest and straightforward about their limitations? Increased transparency isn’t just about greater efficiency—it’s also about greater understanding, participation, and pride among city residents.

Transparency as a source of partnership and global learning opportunities

Cities will find that the benefits of increased transparency go far beyond the local level. In fact, networks such as C40 and the Global Covenant of Mayors are getting stronger for obvious reasons, including that cities tend to be structurally similar enough to share process recommendations and apply them across localities to achieve similar outcomes.

This means that when cities become more transparent about their progress towards their goals, they can share best practices, challenges, and pitfalls to create hugely beneficial learning opportunities for other cities as they embark on their unique paths. As cities communicate best practices horizontally (and as multiple levels of government integrate vertically), driving transparency at the local level has the potential to create the inertia necessary to help us achieve our global climate goals faster than ever before.

Climate planning—and the various commitments made in its name—have been missing this bolder type of transparency for decades. Radical transparency is a powerful tool that should not be feared, but rather embraced in our fights for better local governance and against global climate change.