Transparency in environmental governance is no longer an uncontroversial answer to problems of accountability and effectiveness. How to design effective transparency systems and in what policy contexts they are effective remain contested issues. This special section, consisting of this introduction and four research articles, interrogates complex and potentially conflicting links between transparency, accountability, empowerment and effectiveness in environmental governance. Building on existing literature and the four contributions, we discuss persisting diversity in varieties of transparency, the evolving dynamics of commodity chain transparency, and the consequences of emerging novel forms of digitalized transparency. As we show, the contributions to this special section interrogate in novel ways the transformative potential of transparency, through shedding light on the performative effects of transparency in ever more complex environmental governance contexts. These contexts may include, inter alia, the growing ubiquity of traceability in transnational commodity chains, the need for ever more anticipatory (ex-ante) forms of environmental governance, and an ever-broadening quest for digitally monitored environments. In particular, the impacts of the real-time ‘radical’ transparency engendered by use of novel digital technologies remain under-analyzed in the sustainability domain. We conclude by raising several critical concerns that deserve further scientific research and policy debate.