Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?

by Steve Vanderheiden
CSTPR Faculty, Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies at  University of Colorado at Boulder

Transparency, it is often said, acts as a disinfectant. “Sunshine” laws that require proceedings of government agencies to be made available to the public allow for oversight of and accountability for state actions. Information disclosure laws, like those requiring polluters to report their emissions or political advocacy groups the sources of their funding, can do the same for private actors. By making certain actions or relationships visible, we hope that publicity will encourage good behavior.

But what if it doesn’t, at least on its own? And what needs to accompany that information, in order to make it usable by its target audience? Scholars of “informational governance” have been asking these questions in recent years, given trends toward reliance upon disclosure and transparency rather than more regulatory approaches to environmental protection.

The shift from centrally-prescribed and binding greenhouse gas emission reductions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the non-binding and decentralized Nationally Determined Contributions to global mitigation efforts under the 2015 Paris Agreement offers one example of this trend. Carbon reporting on items sold in British supermarkets offer another. Both expect the publicity of information about emissions to provide an incentive for better environmental performance, whether because states wish to avoid being shamed for their overly modest NDCs or consumers wish to reduce their personal carbon footprints. Both have invited some deserved criticism of informational governance, and both point to important answers to those questions posed above.

While the Paris Agreement has been widely celebrated as a political success, having developed a treaty framework for multilateral cooperation on climate change, critics have noted an “ambition gap” in the submitted NDCs. Even if all major emitters complied with their Paris pledges – which now looks unlikely in the case of the United States, since the submitted decarbonization targets depended upon the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and automobile fuel economy standards, both of which are currently in legal and administrative limbo – the sum total of these mitigation efforts would be insufficient to maintain the treaty’s official goal of preventing warming in excess of 2 degrees C. While disclosure and transparency may promote some level of ambition and provide some enforcement through reputational accountability, as the threat of shaming provides some pressure, that same threat can also deter higher levels of ambition, as governments don’t want to announce targets that they cannot reach.

Carbon labels on products sold in supermarkets like Tesco in Britain illustrate another challenge in the reliance upon information to incentivize environmental performance. Certainly, the sort of product life cycle analysis needed to determine the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk or container of tofu offers benefits to producers and consumers. As advocates of “ecological modernization” often note, this kind of audit can often allow producers to identify and eliminate sources of waste in their supply chains, and reducing the carbon used in transport of food from grower to supermarket shelf can save money while also reducing climate impacts. Likewise, consumers concerned about their own carbon footprints can make more informed choices about their dietary habits and food purchases, when armed with this kind of information. However, as critics have now aptly demonstrated, food miles (the main source of carbon in grocery products) are only one component of sustainable food systems, whereas the carbon label implies a more comprehensive indicator of a product’s sustainability than it can in fact offer. By presenting consumers with only one indicator, other pertinent facts that might be used to make more informed food choices are obscured, with greater transparency of one kind ironically making other relevant information more opaque. As scholars and critics have also noted, prompting consumers to choose locally-produced food over otherwise sustainable but distantly sourced food that had provided economic opportunity to economically marginalized farmers through agricultural export markets.

The answers to those questions posed above, and lessons learned by scholars of informational governance, are several. We ought to recognize the potential value of information gathering and dissemination without overestimating its power to alter behavior on its own, pairing it with other policy tools where necessary and appropriate.  Disclosure and transparency can sometimes work as a substitute for regulation, but elsewhere is more effect as a complement to it. Additionally, we must take more care in balancing the need for credible and usable information on the one hand and a more comprehensive or holistic picture from that information on the other. Too much information can become unmanageable, but too little can be misleading. Getting the right amount, and presenting it in a usable format and maintaining its actionability and credibility can be challenging, but we can learn from our successes and failures.

Transparency, that is, is not the kind of disinfectant that you can always just spray onto a problem area and watch the magic bubbles scrub away the germs and grime on its own, but can make the cleaning job easier for us when used appropriately.

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