Global environmental governance (GEG) is characterized by fragmentation, duplication, dispersed authority, and weak regulations. The gap between the need for action and existing responses has led to demands for accountability. This has created a paradox: accountability mechanisms to improve GEG have proliferated while the environment deteriorates. We offer a two-tier explanation for this paradox. First, actors establishing GEG are not held to account for the design of their environmental interventions. Biases in public, private, voluntary, and hybrid institutions, which shape goals and determine what to account for and to whom, remain unexamined. Second, efforts to establish accountability focus on functional requirements like monitoring and compliance, leading accountability to be viewed as an end in itself. Thus, complying with accountability may not mitigate negative environmental impacts. The utility of accountability hinges on improving governance at both tiers. Turning the accountability lens to the goals of those designing environmental institutions can overcome the focus of justifying institutions over environmental problems.