Agency and accountability

Knowledge brokering04 Dec 2009Kathrin Dombrowski

The two semi-plenaries on agency and accountability, which were held consecutively on Thursday, complemented each other well and illustrated some of the ways in which these two ‘A’s of the Earth System Governance (ESG) Science Plan are interlinked. According to Michele Betsill, the key research questions relating to agency in earth system governance are the following: What is agency? Who are the agents in ESG? How is agency exercised? And how can we evaluate the significance of these agents? She used the case of the carbon cap and trade system to illustrate how we may start thinking about some of these questions. While the idea of carbon markets was actually highly controversial in the early 1990s, their central position in a global climate policy is now widely accepted. However, since 2001, there has also been a change in the way carbon markets are conceptualized. While the cap and trade system was previously mainly talked about in the context of a global, centralized carbon trading system, there is now much greater emphasis on ‘bottom-up’ processes and on the role of sub-national actors. Michele Betsill is interested in how to account for these changes, in who has been involved in the process of change, and in who makes the rules. Members of the audience wondered about the larger normative context of global environmental governance in which these shifts have taken place and about whether we can really conceptualize the market as an actor, as opposed to structure.

The second presentation by Klaus Dieter Wolf also tried to account for change. His research project investigates why large corporations become environmental norm entrepreneurs – why do they adopt forms of best practice and unilateral codes of conduct, or engage in collective self-regulation initiatives? Many of the explanatory factors he suggested are familiar from the literature: protecting corporate reputation, reacting to transnational public pressure, norm internalization, pre-empting regulation, etc. It was interesting, however, that rather than limiting his analysis to single factors, he and his colleagues have constructed a comprehensive framework that allows them to test the applicability of these various factors in conjunction with each other and to gain better insights into their relative importance and possible interlinkages. Klaus Dieter Wolf also raised the very important question of whether corporate norm-entrepreneurship actually served the public interest, and suggested that there are various ways in which public interests and business interests could come into conflict.

The three presentations in the accountability panel were also excellent and the papers by Ronald Mitchell, Steven Bernstein and John Dryzek are definitely top of my reading list. Mitchell spoke about transparency for governance (which he understood as distinct from transparency of governance); Bernstein addressed the question of legitimacy in global governance (drawing a comparison between the Kyoto Protocol as an example of an inter-governmental institution and the non-state International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling (ISEAL) Alliance); while Dryzek offered a forceful defence of the role of deliberative democracy in environmental governance. I need some time to think more deeply about all three arguments (and apologize for my lack of deep reflection here) and have just two quick points to make. The fact that Ronald Mitchell limited his analysis to the idea of transparency for governance (how does transparency effect change in target actors?) meant that the question of transparency of governance was not really addressed in the session. I am also under the impression that people mean different things when they talk about ‘accountability’. One of the panellists defined this as ‘giving an account’ whereas other understandings, especially those used in principal-agent analysis, stress the need for responsiveness in an accountability relationship. Isn’t this potentially quite an important distinction, as it implies very different degrees of constraint on the actor that is being held to account?