When it comes to the urgency and actions needed to combat climate change and environmental crises, the science is clear. However, political systems lag behind.
Governance and political failures, whether they are a lack of political will, short-terminism or weak accountability, undermine the effectiveness of climate action support or environmental programmes. Despite this, traditionally most development programmes treat strengthening democracy or governance separately to environmental protection.
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What is the relationship between democracy and the environment?
Wealthy democracies vary on their responses to climate change but are generally expected to be better at protecting the rights of those most at risk from environmental threats (Burnell, 2012). Where deliberative mechanisms exist, citizens have more outlets to voice their opinions and push for environmental protection (Fischer, 2018). Similarly, where there is media freedom and freedom of association, opportunities exist to organise and increase public awareness of climate change (Povitkina, 2018). For example, in the 156 countries studied by Caravannis (2021), countries with higher degrees of political freedom were found to feature stronger environmental performance.
Despite this, the relationship between democracy and environmental outcomes may be complicated. Critics argue that democracy is based on finding a compromise among competing interests, some of which may go against environmental objectives, making the prospects for ambitious environmental policy more challenging (Fischer, 2018). Alternatively, electoral cycles may discourage the longer-term policies needed for environmental protection (Povitkina, 2018).
While it is difficult to argue that democracies are unequivocally better in addressing environmental problems, there is strong evidence that suggests that democracies generally have better environmental performance than non-democracies or autocracies (Fiorino, 2018; Li and Reuveny, 2006).
Access to credible environmental data
This is at the heart of environmental democracy as it allows policymakers and the private sector to manage environmental issues, and also allows civil society and other groups to ensure governments are accountable and policies are implemented effectively. If data is not available, the rights of marginalised or vulnerable populations, such as indigenous groups, may be at risk.
The right to information is enshrined in the Rio Declaration (1992), Aarhus Convention (1998) and the more recent Ezcazu Agreement (2018) in Latin America, as well as in the Paris Agreement’s (2015) Enhanced Transparency Framework (ETF) which requires countries to submit NDC reports with clear, transparent and quantifiable information about progress.
In the private sector, reporting initiatives can increase access to credible environmental data. For example, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) promotes good governance in oil, gas, and mineral resources industries worldwide. High transparency in environmental reporting enhances accountability of extractive industry stakeholders, and at the same time promotes democratic practices like civil society participation and involvement of communities in local governance (Robinson, 2022).
- In general, the level of data openness among OECD countries has increased (OECD Open, Useful and Re-usable data Index: 2019). High-income countries tend to have higher levels of openness when it comes to environmental data than lower income states.
- According to Open Knowledge International (2017), the main challenges with ensuring openness of environmental information are 1) lack of credible data, 2) data not being available in a user-friendly format and 3) data not being openly-licensed.
- Separately, polluting industries have strong incentives not to disclose environmental harm (Kim et al. 2016)
The greater these barriers, the harder it is for the public, policymakers, and civil society to accurately know about the current state of the environment and act accordingly.
Political voice and multi-stakeholder coalitions
Political voice and environmental action
Democracies need ways for citizens and organisations to communicate their needs, preferences, and experiences and to hold government accountable for their actions. Collectively, this is called ‘political voice’. Political voices and coalitions can help address environmental problems by raising citizens’ concerns and holding governments accountable. To do so, political voices need to be more inclusive and aware on climate change. Find out more about the role of political voice and coalitions in this blog.
It is therefore important to strengthen channels for political voice to influence governments – either directly (through affecting policymaking) or indirectly (by influencing the selection of policymakers). This may include democratic innovation in the form of mechanisms such as climate assemblies or wider stakeholder consultations. Media, political coalitions and civil society organisations all have a role to play.
Mass media and social media platforms are fundamental to strengthening and shaping political voices as they can take on the role of mediator between government and the public. This is because:
- Media outlets can educate the public about environmental issues.
- Media outlets can encourage environmentally friendly behaviour.
- Media outlets can help communicate (and criticise) environmental policies.
- Social media, can spur climate action and activism (Pearce et al., 2019, Hywel et al., 2015, Anderson, 2017), especially from young people (Wahlstrom et al, 2019) as in the Fridays for Future movement.
However, state (or otherwise)-controlled media may negatively affect environmental outcomes – either through spreading misinformation or restricting access to information.
Therefore, if the media is to provide constructive channel for political voice, journalists need to be well-informed and able to draw on experts on environmental topics. In addition, it is vital that there is transparency around the sponsorship and ownership of media outlets (particularly regarding links to fossil fuel interests).
Political coalitions help establish strong, unified political voices that can put more pressure on government and oversee their performance. For example, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) represents the interests of 39 small island and low-lying coastal developing states in international climate change and sustainable development negotiations and processes. On their own, none of these states would have much political power. But because they have unified under one coalition, their political voice is significantly strengthened.
Such coalitions can influence climate change policies by having an agenda-setting power, which is critical in bringing it to the forefront of government decision-making.
In many cases, civil society organisations and social movements have changed environmental policy and practice – for example on topics ranging from environmental justice to divestment (Cole and Foster, 2001; Klein, 2017).
They are also associated with the popular legitimacy of global climate governance (Bernauer et al., 2013).
Case study: Growing potential of deliberative democracy: Citizens assemblies on climate
Climate assemblies bring together randomly selected people who are representative of a population's diversity (e.g. by age) to learn, deliberate, and make recommendations on various aspects of the climate crisis. The process is usually facilitated by an independent organisation and includes input from experts. Climate assemblies help policymakers to think differently about responding to the climate crisis and challenge their preconceptions about what can be achieved politically. Climate assemblies have been created on local, national and global scales, such as Ireland’s citizens’ assembly leading to the creation of a national climate plan and the government implementing a legal requirement to reach net-zero by 2050. In 2021, both the Washington Climate Assembly, the first climate assembly in the United States, and the first global climate assembly, were launched.
Political parties can help strengthen environmental democracy through mediating public preferences and political voices, by holding government accountable on environmental actions, and through party competition. But there is a need for more awareness of environmental issues and policy responses to climate change among political parties – that is where international support can help.
What role do political parties play?
Strengthening existing political parties and safeguarding the ability to form new ones is important for environmental democracy. This is because:
- Political parties respond to, and shape, public attitudes. This may involve raising the profile of environmental concerns, increasing public awareness and/or deciding which specific issues make it to the political agenda and which do not (Green-Petersen and Mortensen, 2010; Green-Petersen, 2019).
- Political parties can also directly influence the level of ambition of policy by shaping the strategic direction and content of policies, for example through legislation.
- Competition between political parties can also influence environmental policies. This may be because voters are given a greater choice of parties to vote for, so parties may increase the ambition of environmental policies to attract votes (Rohrschneider and Miles, 2015).
- However, competition between political parties may complicate political processes and lead to ineffective policy compromises in polarised societies (Ladrech and Little, 2019).
Across the world, there has been an increase in the number and importance of green parties, including in several emerging economics. For example, Colombia’s Green Alliance holds nine seats in both the lower and upper houses of Congress, along with several key mayoral positions. However, this is not a uniform trend, with weak/no green party representation in democratic states like Norway, or across Asia and the Middle East (McBride, 2022).
However, this does not necessarily translate to more ambitious climate policies. The Climate Performance Index (2021) rated climate policies from 57 states and the EU, and saw many democratic countries with declining climate policy scores.
Political parties have an important role to play in safeguarding the key pillars of democracy and advancing the environmental agenda. Yet, when countries look to spend money on environment and development projects overseas, political parties are often overlooked. It is important that foreign aid programmes consider the role of political parties and include interventions to strengthen their positive influence on environmental issues. Equally, the environmental agenda should be part of democracy assistance programmes targeting political parties.
Political accountability and access to justice
Research has found that strong accountability and political oversight mechanisms are expected to lead to better environmental performance, and vice versa.
In democracies, generally the national executive branch is accountable to legislative and judicial bodies, as well as to expert bodies and citizens. This form of parliamentary oversight is a central element of many climate change and environmental laws. For example, in Colombia the President is required to report to Parliament on progress in implementing target committed to under the Paris Agreement ahead of reporting to the United Nations. Some laws establish consequences for non-compliance, such as financial penalties (e.g. in Taiwan, Croatia and Kenya).
There is also a growing role of judicial oversight, as the number of cases challenging government inaction or lack of ambition on climate policy continues to grow (Setzer and Higham, 2021). In Kenya, for example, the climate change law guarantees the right of any citizen to bring complaints related to adaptation and mitigation to court.
Measures overseeing climate performance by governments therefore need to be strengthened.
International development assistance helps drive sustainable development and environmental projects. At the same time, it can support democracy and democratic transition. This section discusses how an environmental democracy approach can bridge these priorities, including some of the barriers to this.
Foreign aid and democracy
In general, international donors tend to favour recipients that adopt “good” policies and have some democratic characteristics (Robertsen et al., 2015). In international democracy support, donors favour countries that are not backsliding into authoritarianism. Recent research shows democracy aid tends to be more effective in countries that are already undergoing democratisation compared to aid targeting prevention of authoritarian backsliding (Niño-Zarazúa et al., 2020).
Strengthening democracy and enabling democratic transition has been among the key objectives of multiple donors and development finance institutions. For example, strengthening good governance and promoting democratic values are among the key strategic objectives of development assistance provided by the US, the largest bilateral aid donor (USAID, 2018).
However, there are challenges – namely in maintaining neutrality across politics, race, religion and ideology (Van Mierop, 2015).
The environmental democracy approach and foreign aid
In many countries, international development assistance has helped address domestic environmental issues and support implementation of global environmental agreements.
However, there is significant potential to integrate democracy and climate adaptation objectives in these recipient countries to achieve better climate resilience. For example, targeting local level institutions in adaptation finance has been shown lead to fairer transition, preventing inequalities and exclusion (Colenbrander et al. 2018).
Expert interviews conducted for this study showed high recognition within environmental experts of the need to focus on programmes which address governance and political failures. Frequently cited reasons for this include lack of political will, short-termism and weak accountability.
Despite this, few interviewed experts were familiar with the concept of “environmental democracy”. Most preferred a simpler framing, which would be more widely understood, such as “environmental or climate change governance”, or focusing on the separate components of environmental democracy.
Reinforcing these core pillars of environmental governance can in turn also lead to stronger democracies. Environmental governance acts as an entry point for more implementing more democratic priorities and mobilising citizen action.
Below are several key quotes from interviews with experts which demonstrate this.
“There's a lot to learn from other fields, particularly in the peace and security and conflict resolution. Everyone who worked on nation building or large-scale peace building implementation attempts, have learned critical lessons on how to balance, shape and strengthen political will”
“We've seen examples where democratic space is shrinking, but climate change is high on the agenda and not perceived as sensitive by the government as working on human rights. Working with environmental issues in these circumstances can promote participatory approaches and local democracy”
“Environment officers are often also good governance and democracy officers… Experience of the USAID programmes in Eastern Europe in the 1990s shows that when environmental support is done right, it also raises awareness and strengthens participatory approaches including women and youth”.
What are the barriers to integrating environmental governance into foreign aid?
Although interviewees showed growing recognition of the importance of dealing with governance failures in relation to climate change, this study identified three significant barriers to improving how well environmental democracy interventions were integrated into development co-operation on environmental issues. Broadly speaking, they are related to knowledge gaps and framing in donor agencies; inadequate funding strategies and cycles, with short-term funding cycles, siloed development funding, an overall strategic deficit and measurement and reporting. For example, measurement systems for environmental and climate change programmes are too focused on indicators related to physical output and emission reductions.
A knowledge gap exists around how to effectively measure governance change in environmental programmes, as well as how to include relevant indicators in the reporting systems.
How can these barriers be overcome?
Despite these challenges, the recognition of environmental democracy in international agreements such as the Rio Declaration, Aarhus Convention and Ezcazu Agreement provides a solid basis for incorporating environmental governance into development co-operation.
Evidence is growing about how integrating governance priorities into technical environmental programmes can help increase the effectiveness and sustainability of the interventions. Examples are emerging on the explicit integration of environment and governance, human rights and democracy objectives at the strategic level into foreign aid and on the use of the longer-term theories of change.
For example, Sweden’s strategy for regional development co-operation in Asia and the Pacific region (2016-2021) notes:
“Activities are to be conducted in a manner that strengthens the ability of regional actors to integrate an environmental and climate perspective into programmes related to human rights, democracy and gender equality, and that strengthens regional actors’ efforts to promote respect for human rights, greater opportunities for democratic participation and gender mainstreaming into programmes related to environment, climate and natural resources”
Case study: Georgia paves the way towards more environmental and climate ambition
WFD’s Georgia programme employs the principles of environmental democracy in order to achieve action on climate and environmental issues. WFD engages with parliamentarians, political parties, civil society, the private sector and the media to increase domestic support and accountability around climate change. Key activities within the programme include supporting civil society organisations (CSOs) by providing training and mentoring sessions on how to address local concerns about the climate crisis amongst other issues, and running online knowledge sharing workshops between political parties and CSOs. The programme also supports parliament with issues related to the National Energy and Climate Plan by providing training sessions on intersectional analysis of draft legislation, for example. The programme is still new, but some of the preliminary outcomes include conducting a blended learning course on environmental democracy for some local councils and delivering Political Economy Analysis of Georgia’s environmental and climate governance.
To address the climate and environmental crises effectively, a tangible impact must be made on governance systems. Development co-operation decisionmakers must therefore:
- Launch dialogues or joint action groups to exchange experiences around the challenges and best practice to design, implement, oversee and measure impact for blended programming and gather examples on how integration has worked in different sectors and political contexts. These should include donor agencies, implementing institutions, civil society, local partners and academic experts.
- Improve understanding about the importance of governance as an issue within climate change and environmental agenda among the senior development co-operation leadership.
- Introduce cross-cutting objectives into development co-operation strategies and explicitly articulate the value of working politically and working on governance in a democratic way in the context of the climate and environment development co-operation programmes.
- Tap into experiences of the country offices and embassies in the development of overarching strategic priorities and programming at the regional and the global level.
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