Thinking Bigger on Climate, Energy, and Participation

To beat climate change, we need to reform permit processes and strengthen participation.

Open Government Partnership
OGP Horizons
3 min readJun 18, 2024


Credit: Nicholas Doherty via Unsplash

By Joseph Foti and Dieter Zinnbauer

The big idea

To quickly build new infrastructure to move away from fossil fuels, we need to change the permit processes. We can do that and strengthen participation at the same time.

Why it matters

We need new mines, new power lines, and new ways we use our land, air, and sea. The current rules are biased toward a harmful status quo — every time we do not build, we leave fossil fuels in place.

The conundrum

At the same time, a strong process of environmental permitting (including environmental impact assessments) has improved human health, saved species, protected public land, and improved regulation. The main way it does this is by creating a process of transparency, public input, and reasoned response that allows the public to raise concerns about plans, propose alternatives, and inform decision makers about the risks of taking certain actions. But has this process gotten out of hand, taking so much time that we can no longer innovate?

What we can do instead

  • Level the playing field: There is an old saying: “For my friends, everything. For my enemy, the law.” This seems to be the case when, often in the name of energy independence or national interest, oil and gas pipelines (the friends) are fast tracked with exemptions while less-harmful alternatives like renewable energy sources need to go through every hoop at every level of government to receive approval. This means removing “categorical exclusions” for environmental review of natural gas and oil and subjecting them to the same public oversight as other energy sources. (See these resources on subjecting fossil fuel permitting to greater cumulative impacts analysis and improving the accuracy of long-term accounting in cost-benefit analysis.)
  • Move participation “early” and “up”: There are numerous potential avenues to accelerate and create “master impact assessment” processes. This might mean reviving strategic environmental assessment, centralizing permitting authority, or improving public oversight of renewables and energy transition planning.
  • Shift the scope of public oversight: In too many countries, utility power purchase agreements (PPAs) are hidden. PPAs include not only pricing and delivery targets, but also green energy targets. When the public and elected officials cannot see these agreements, they cannot evaluate whether they meet public goals, including climate goals. Making PPAs transparent is only one example of using open contracting for a better climate. Open data approaches to contracts, too, are essential.

Find out more

  • REPowerEU is the only major enacted law on permitting reform to promote renewable energy, which applies to the European Union. The law includes a set of directives and recommendations. Spain, in particular, stands out as a successful test case of permitting reform for energy transition.
  • There is vigorous debate on this topic and it can be worth hearing different perspectives. To get a taste of these debates, check out perspectives from Brookings, the Natural Resources Defense Council in the United States, as well as opinions from the European Union and BusinessEurope.
  • None of these reforms to the permits process works without room for dissent. Check out ICNL’s guidance on how to protect climate activists from harassment and intimidation.



Open Government Partnership
OGP Horizons

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