Chronic dry spells in southern Zambia’s Sinazongwe district have had devastating effects on local communities. So it came as a surprise when a government-run dam and irrigation project was met with hostility by citizens.

Recognizing the country’s vulnerability to climate change, the Zambian government declared climate adaptation a national priority, promising to implement projects to help local communities become more resilient. However, the government failed to include people in these affected areas in its design and decision-making processes for adaptation projects like the Sinazongwe dam. The project displaced many and prevented them from sowing their land. Fearing the threat to their livelihoods, local communities resisted the project, and have delayed its completion.

While the Zambian case may seem very specific, it actually reflects a vital component of climate action that is often overshadowed—namely, that of governance. Negotiators made major and encouraging promises when they adopted the new Paris Agreement at COP21 last week. Yet the future success of this Agreement relies on tough questions about accountability, participation, transparency and effectiveness—all of which have governance challenges at their core.

An Empowered Public Essential for Holding Politicians Accountable

Political leaders in Paris made impressive commitments on national actions to tackle climate change—but now comes the hard part of following through. Politicians often change, and new leaders may not honor previous commitments. Or, as new circumstances arise— such as a tighter fiscal environment—politicians have been known to backtrack. We saw this in Denmark, a country often considered at the forefront of climate action, when it cut back on its emissions-reduction goals, citing they would “impose extra costs on the business community.”

While the Paris Agreement has built-in mechanisms to ensure accountability, transparency and ambition, consistency of commitments is also a matter of political accountability; politicians should be held accountable for their public commitments and decisions by the electorate. An active civil society and media can serve as powerful forces able to exert accountability on political leaders.

Yet in many countries around the world, civil society simply lacks the freedoms necessary to hold their governments accountable. Laws may not allow for the existence of organizations that understand and advocate on climate issues. Even when civil society is actively engaged on climate issues, it may be constrained by the fact that climate issues don’t always command a high profile in domestic affairs. And in still other cases, many countries around the world have introduced restrictive legislation that limits the freedom of civil society to campaign freely, and constrains or censors the media.

Instead, governments should encourage open dialogue and create a safe operating environment for civil society. For example, strides made by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which includes 70 countries worldwide, have strengthened government commitments to collaborate more with civil society and allow their voices to be heard on transparency and accountability issues. OGP National Action Plans offer the potential to build in commitments on climate and sustainable development through dialogue with civil society.

A Need for Transparency and Efficiency

Two other critical governance dimensions of climate actions concern transparency of budgets and the efficiency of governmental decision making. Before and during Paris, countries committed substantially more funding to help less developed nations mitigate and adapt to climate change.  Open budgets are vital for tracking these funds. They enable civil society to provide oversight on fund flows from national to local levels, and ensure that budgets are spent on their intended purposes. The Philippines, for example, lacked a centralized climate finance monitoring agency, prompting civil society organizations to launch a comprehensive investigation on where funds were being spent. They discovered that a significant portion of climate funds were going unreported, and only a fraction was reaching the vulnerable communities who need climate finance the most. By uncovering these discrepancies, Philippine civil society was able to pressure their Congress to establish the Oversight Committee on Climate Change.

Financial flows also highlight the importance of government effectiveness. Currently, most budget systems have adaptation funds flowing from central to local governments. Starting with the ministries of finance, funds flow invariably to allocated budgets of different ministries that work on climate change adaptation. Then, these ministries delegate much of the responsibility of managing these funds to the local governments, which often lack the capacity to implement proactive adaptation strategies. The lack of communication and coordination between these levels of government undermines climate commitments and adaptation projects. Research conducted by the Adaptation Finance Accountability Initiative found that when funding goes directly to local governments instead of starting at the top and trickling down, the central government is better positioned to help build capacity locally and effectively implement projects. 

These dimensions of governance all have a bearing on the implementation of climate commitments post-Paris. While the Agreement itself outlines standards for monitoring and verification, this narrow scope ignores the political and technical dimensions that improve the quality of governance itself. Improving governance throughout the nations of the world—especially those with weak democracies and civil rights—will be key for ensuring they follow through on their climate ambitions.