Addressing Challenges to Accountability and Transparency in the Global Assessment of International Agreements

At Yale’s New Directions in Environmental Law conference, the ‘International Agreements and Domestic Implementation’ panel centered on actions taken at international levels in response to climate change. The main themes addressed within the entirety of this panel were state accountability, and the issue of transparent environmental information and its important role in shaping international agreements. Each panelist spoke from their own expertise as it related to transparency and accountability.
Sue Biniaz, Climate Change Legal Advisor to the U.S. Department of State, opened by describing her role within the U.S. State Department in designing international agreements to promote domestic implementation—and highlighted her experience working on the Paris Climate Agreement, from inception through its ratification in 2015. She also spoke to the various challenges of working on international agreements and outlined some of the United States’ polices in their international pursuits. One particular challenge was ensuring suitable transparency and accountability in all aspects of international environmental negotiations. 
As a State Department representative, Biniaz characterized her department’s international work, explaining that the U.S. relies heavily on determining whether each country has the capacity to commit and implement non-binding environmental agreements on an international scale. In outlining the most important factors to the U.S. in drafting and encouraging agreements, she listed seven main criteria: 
  1. Clarifying commitments
  2. Making commitments realistic
  3. Having strong reporting requirements
  4. Requiring an implementation review  
  5. Assisting developing countries
  6. Creating pre-existing implementing framework (The U.S. follows this rule fully—not joining international agreements unless they are absolutely positive of their compliance capability)
  7. Accommodating special circumstances 
Successful implementation of Biniaz’s criteria require strong levels of transparency and accountability. 
David Deese, Scholar in Residence at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, speaking unencumbered from the perspective of academia, outlined his current research—including a study of why some nation states are successful in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions while others struggle. Many of his indicators for this study relied heavily on transparency capacities. For his state performance research, five different indicators are used: performance on renewables, performance on energy efficiency, fiscal policy, political leadership, and national identity and reputation. Finding information on state performance, however, has proven to be unreliable and difficult. Given that many states self-report environmental data and are not held to a strict legally binding international agreements (as international agreements are largely voluntary and non-binding in nature), they lack both proper accountability for their actions—or inactions—and institutions for measuring and reporting transparent information. With this challenge persisting, it is difficult for international negotiators and academics alike to find the correct information they need to facilitate progress. 
The response to these major challenges lies in the Environmental Protection Index (EPI). Zach Wendling, a Postdoctoral Associate within the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, spoke extensively about the EPI and its role in measuring progress in sustainability on a global scale. He stressed the importance of not only implementing policy, but measuring outcomes to determine what does and does not work. He highlighted the EPI’s commitment to establishing an effective methodology with the intent to create a standardized assessment of global performance data. With the EPI in place, he posited that global data should become the de facto standard and exponentially improve transparency. The EPI should be the go-to reporting verification system to ensure that countries have accountability outside of simply self-reporting their data. Wendling noted that through the EPI, countries can be held more easily accountable, as the system can track defined contributions, determine if countries are fulfilling their goals, and reduce the overall uncertainty in tracking greenhouse gas emissions and their sources.
The EPI is being developed with the sole purpose of being the first accountable indicator of global sustainability progress. It is intended to aid international environmental policymakers in determining policy outcomes as they relate to real progress on the ground. The EPI also tracks state commitments over time. By establishing a methodology that standardizes information across countries, the EPI can produce verifiable and performance-oriented analysis of progress. The EPI can, for the first time, establish an ongoing system of information that will track compliance to international agreements, with the intention of reducing the uncertainty of which greenhouse gases exist and who is emitting them. From this point, policymakers can examine the evidence, determine what’s working, identify where challenges still persist, and track the states that are not participating at expected levels. Wendling stated that the EPI will identify the heterogeneity in who consistently excels in international environmental agreement compliance and who falls short. This robust data system, Wendling presented, is the future for assessment of accountability and transparency on an international level. 
The EPI is a progressive response to the persistent and overwhelming challenges of accountability and transparency. International agreements are unequivocally essential to global progress but, unfortunately, lack the enforcement capabilities to ensure broad compliance. This new global information and verification system will revolutionize the way states react to and comply with agreements. With greater oversight and more stringent compliance standards, global sustainability progress seems almost limitless.  
Natalie Kilker: Natalie Kilker is a 2017 summa cum laude graduate of Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degrees in Global Studies with a minor in Sustainability and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.  She recently defended her Senior Honors Thesis, “Addressing International Implications of Adverse Climate Impacts in the Arctic: A Case Study Analysis on the Challenge of Hazardous Waste Introduction due to Ice Melt at Camp Century Greenland,” after completing a nine-month research project that included attending the New Directions in Environmental Law Conference this past February at Yale. She is employed by Arizona State University in International Development at the ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development and is studying to take her LSAT exam in the Fall. 
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