This article is part of a series and has been written by the Master’s students in Global Politics and Society at the University of Milan. As attending students of “The Welfare States and Innovation” course, they explored the connection between Social Innovation and new forms of Welfare in contemporary societies. The article highlights the development of new synergistic partnerships among actors involved in multi-stakeholder networks and innovative multi-level governance models for social policies.

Over the last decades, participatory budgeting has gained extraordinary popularity as a form of social innovation that brings together different non-governmental, private and public actors for democratic empowerment and higher rates of civic participation. Widely adapted all over the globe, it has recently overseen some noteworthy and important developments when it comes to processes of decision-making around climate mitigation and sustainability. These recent developments are worthy of scrutiny within the fields of social innovation and sustainable development, as they hold the potential for radical change and solutions. For this reason, this article aims at providing a brief overview on the current developments in participatory budgeting for climate change to bring about an initial discussion on the radical (yet largely untapped) potential of this form of bottom-up, civic participation in tackling today’s great challenges around sustainable development.

The participatory budgeting: origins and developments

As defined by Sintomer et al. (2012), participatory budgeting “allows the participation of non-elected citizens in the conception and/or allocation of public finances”. Specifically, according to the scholars, the realisation of five features are crucial for the process to be actually conceptualised as such. These include:

  1. discussion(s) of budgetary processes;
  2. involvement of administration at city/municipal level;
  3. the repetition of the process over a time period;
  4. inclusion of forms of public deliberation;
  5. some type of democratic accountability to the process and its outcomes.

Since the start of participatory budgeting in the 80s in Porto Alegre, Brazil, it has spread like wildfire to all corners of the globe. Supporters cite the case of Porto Alegre as one of many success stories, where the implementation of participatory budgeting was highly responsible for empowering large swathes of the population. As Melgar (2014) argues, “from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, the participatory budgeting process consistently saw high attendance levels, mobilising thousands of people from grassroots communities: participation had a tangible impact in terms of increased public investment in the peripheries, and Porto Alegre’s communities responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to define the budget”.

Despite having shown its emancipatory and radical possibilities, critics of contemporary participatory budgeting often highlight the seeming inability of the process to bring about truly radical and transformative potentials in its present-day application. Even in its original crib of Porto Alegre, the process has been declining significantly, which is in part attributable to the demise of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, the party that was largely responsible for its initial implementation. Critics from all sides of the political spectrum emphasise the lack of transformative and radical outcomes that participatory budgeting has failed to bring about.

A new horizon for participatory budget: climate change and sustainability

This being said, a new horizon has started to shape participatory budgeting and its possibilities, and it has to do with climate change and sustainability. In fact, processes of participatory budgeting have been increasingly incorporated across the globe as a way of making crucial efforts on climate adaptation and mitigation for local communities. Early research on whether this type of social innovation holds transformative potential prove optimistic.

For example, Cabannes et al. (2021) provide a comprehensive study of 4,400 participatory budgeting projects spanning over 15 cities, both in the Global North and South and find significant and interesting findings. Specifically, they found that this type of democratic process for climate justice has a significant advantage in its ability to provide solutions that are tailored made for the community that participates in the process, as well as to local problems and vulnerabilities, as “participatory budgeting initiatives sensitive to climate change did not really emerge as an international agenda imperative or in response to international priorities. They tended to appear instead as a citizen and local government response to very precise and immediate climatic effects”.

Crucially, it also appears that participatory budgeting processes for climate change mitigation have the ability to evolve and adapt as demands and vulnerabilities change, something that is much more difficult to achieve through international law and international agreements due to the very little levels of flexibility. This is a major strength for proponents of participatory budgeting; it implies that it can be a vehicle to better understand populations’ and communities’ perception of their own needs and risks as it is the local communities that determine the projects’ proposals and its objectives. Moreover, as the authors argue, “participatory budgeting seems a good instrument for responding with some immediacy to climate change effects that are constantly evolving – in other words, to adapt. It is important, therefore, to deepen the analysis of how these citizen-based proposals differ from priorities set internationally” (Cabannes 2021).

Importantly, fairness and democratic accountability appear to be critical components for this kind of practice to be successful. For example, Gherghina and Tap (2021), showed that the fairness and rigour of the proposals is the main factor affecting public participation and support for sustainability projects. Based on empirical research conducted in Romania, the authors conclude that “citizens take environmental matters seriously and do not vote for schematic projects that are limited in scope and that do not pose any potential for contributing to the general welfare”. Thus, there’s fertile grounds for participatory budgeting’s potential, as long as it is perceived as reliable and just by the relevant participants.

Another key component for an effective participatory budgeting around the issue of ecology and sustainability is the need to develop an intergenerational praxis, where the exercise of thinking in terms of future generations can be developed and put in place. Kulha et al. (2021) describe the main takeaways from their research on participatory budgeting in Finland. Crucially, they conclude that “deliberative mini publics are expected to have a capacity to enhance, not just participants’ understanding of long-term consequences of policy choices, but also their capacity to perspective-taking and sense of intergenerational fairness”. This has important implications for participatory budgeting and climate change, as it suggests that the process of public deliberation between participants can stimulate relevant actors to engage and support sustainability policies within the realm of public decision-making, thus stressing the needs for democratic participation processes around climate change.

Towards a democratic way?

This concept is echoed in Cohen (2012). Looking at the UK context, the author establishes that there’s often a sense of public distrust towards the national government when it comes to climate change and sustainability, often due to the top-down nature of national climate policy. The author maintains that participatory budgeting around climate change emissions can provide a democratic way to better and transform relationships between local authorities and citizens. As he explains, PEB “may create a more collaborative process based on dialogue in which citizens may come to appreciate the environmental imperatives, and authority stakeholders may be convinced that there is greater popular acceptance of pro-environmental measures than they had thought. It is possible that PEB will also lead participants to make pro-environmental behaviour changes individually”.

Overall, the research on the matter seems unanimous in its support for participatory budgeting. The key challenges that await us will be to make sure that such processes are done with rigour and fairness, so that participatory budgeting can be successful and unleash its radical potential. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, this matter acquires exceptional poignancy.


  • Cabannes, Y. (2021). Contributions of participatory budgeting to climate change adaptation and mitigation: current local practices across the world and lessons from the field, in “Environment and Urbanization”, vol. 33, n. 2, pp. 356–375.
  • Cohen, T. (2012). Can participatory emissions budgeting help local authorities to tackle climate change?, in “Environmental Development”, vol. 2, n. 1, pp. 18–35.
  • Gherghina, S. e Tap, P. (2021). Ecology Projects and Participatory Budgeting: Enhancing Citizens’ Support, in “Sustainability”, vol. 13, 10561. su131910561
    Kulha, K., Leino, M., Setälä, M., Jäske, M. e Himmelroos, S. (2021). For the Sake of the Future: Can Democratic Deliberation Help Thinking and Caring about Future Generations?, in “Sustainability”, vol. 13, 5487. https://
  • Melgar, T. (2014). A Time of Closure? Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, after the Workers’ Party Era, in “Journal of Latin American Studies”, vol. 46, n. 1, pp. 121-149. doi:10.1017/S0022216X13001582
  • Sintomer, Y., Herzberg, C. e Rocke, A. (2012). Transnational Models of Citizen Participation: The Case of Participatory Budgeting, in “Sociologias”, vol. 14, n. 30, pp. 70–116.


Foto di copertina: Andrew Poynton da Pixabay.