Kampala, Uganda, mid-2021: Climate Change Committee Chairman Lawrence Biyika Songa convenes a high-level roundtable in the run-up to COP26. With the main public policy and civil society actors in one room, consensus is built around the (previously stalled) national climate bill. A week later Parliament passes it without opposition.
Resulting from WFD’s efforts to embed environmental democracy in its programmes, this is one of many examples of tangible progress: people being given an opportunity to access information and participate in decision-making, creating the political space and momentum for ambitious climate policies.
Following COP26 in Glasgow, global attention has been drawn to the climate and environmental crises. Now, world leaders will have another gathering on their mind: President Biden’s Summit for Democracy. Far from having their attention pulled in two different directions, this is actually an opportunity to realise the fundamental links between action to strengthen democracy and action to address the environmental crisis. Taking place from 9-10 December 2021, the summit will focus on the challenges and opportunities faced by democracies as well as methods to strengthen democracy.
Environmental democracy practices do not undermine representative democracy – rather, they provide a solution-oriented toolbox to strengthen it. In the wake of COP26 , the Summit for Democracy is a moment to simultaneously support climate commitments and strengthen global democracy.
The environmental democracy lens
Established in Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the pillars of environmental democracy are transparency and openness, participation, and accountability and access to justice. They are mutually reinforcing.
Although environmental democracy is increasingly incorporated into international agreements, its flame is not catching fast enough. In 2020, environmental defenders were killed in record numbers. At the same time, national and multilateral agencies targeting environmental problems, as well as international democracy support actors, have been restricted through lack of investment.
Many of today’s environmental concerns are, at their core, political issues and failures of governance. Political systems worldwide have thus far failed to produce the decisive action required to adequately address climate change.
Yet a failure to avoid dangerous warming will destabilise societies and hit the most vulnerable peoples and countries first. The science says time is short, but any solutions are constrained by political and financial considerations.
Rapid and profound changes in our lifestyles are required: from the way that we eat, heat our homes, and travel, to the way we invest our savings. In the short term, some of these changes will be complex and costly. Different policies will place the financial burden on different social groups. Unfair or ill-communicated policies will allow populists to undermine the significant, sustained public support for needed climate policy objectives.
Open data on the environment, open societies?
In this context, open societies provide significant opportunities for the planet.
Environmental openness, the right to freely access information on the environment, is required to help citizens and other stakeholders understand how governments are responding to environmental challenges. Although increasingly common in legislation, many countries remain reluctant to open up environmental data.
This entails significant risk for sound environmental governance and the rule of law. A lack of openness may enable corruption and policy capture, leading to environmental degradation and related social issues. In turn, corruption and policy capture undermine access to information on the environment and political participation.
Despite the growing number of initiatives seeking to improve access to information, opacity around environmental issues and natural resource-based economic development remains the rule in many resource-rich countries.
Democracy that delivers
In contrast, there is a clear link between a well-functioning democracy and addressing environmental crises. Working on the nexus of sustainable environmental governance and the democratic process delivers benefits on both fronts and maximises the effectiveness of investment on multilateral climate technology cooperation and open governance.
Scaling up this approach, however, requires unprecedented synergies between civil society, policy experts and government departments.
Environmental democracy in practice
Some of the fundamental concepts of environmental democracy were formalised by UNFCCC in 1992, as Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE). This focuses on actions to promote climate awareness, education and training, access to information, public participation, and international cooperation.
Although ACE pledges are non-binding, they are essential for democratic countries’ climate action. Failing to promote ACE will likely result in democratic governments running out of political space and democratic legitimacy to ratchet up climate action at the scale needed to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement.
The adoption of the Glasgow ACE Work Programme, agreed at COP26, represents a renewed commitment to integrating environmental democracy practices throughout the commitments made across the conference.
In this context, the upcoming Summit for Democracy provides the opportunity to mainstream the environmental democracy approach. At this critical moment, it offers a unique chance to turbo-charge climate action with democratic innovation and simultaneously strengthen representative democracy itself.
This blog was adapted from Rafael Jimenez Aybar’s piece in Global Britain for an Open World with the Foreign Policy Centre.