China's low-carbon city initiative: Authoritarian environmentalism and climate policy experimentation

    Project: Research project

    Project Details


    China’s low-carbon city initiative, launched in 2010, is one of the most important climate change responses from the world’s largest carbon polluter. Departing from conventional top-down governance approaches, the initiative aims to encourage bottom-up climate policy experimentation without imposing strict rules for local governments to follow. Under the initiative, a total of 36 cities have been tasked to experiment with innovative responses to decarbonisation. Despite its significance as a climate change response, the initiative as well as the participating low-carbon cities have attracted little research attention. Consequently, climate policy experimentation at the local level remains a poorly understood component of China’s climate governance, which has been, by and large, analysed from a rather narrow perspective, emphasising the dominant role of the central government over local authorities and non-state actors. This study aims to address this neglected yet important research area.

    The proposed mixed-method approach has two parts. First, to gain an overview of bottom-up climate policy experimentation and the performance of the initiative, the research team will conduct a comparative study to develop a database of policy experiments in all low-carbon cities. The following data will be collected: (1) the timing, location, and local contexts of the experimentation; (2) the specifications of the experimentation, such as policy instruments and targets; and (3) the actors. The database will allow us to identify patterns of climate policy experiments and how these patterns correlate with the geographical, socioeconomic, and political characteristics of low-carbon cities. Second, the research team will conduct in-depth case studies in five low-carbon cities (Baoding, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Jilin, and Urumqi) to examine the different approaches to climate experimentation. Through semi-structured interviews, the research team will focus on: (1) the roles and visions of local stakeholders in climate policy experimentation; (2) the challenges and barriers in fulfilling these roles and visions and how they have been overcome; and (3) how the actions and visions of local stakeholders are embedded in institutional structures. The findings will be conceptualised into five different models of low-carbon experimentation and their implications for authoritarian environmentalism theory will be explored.

    This three-year study will not only add to the practical understanding of what works, why it works, and how climate governance can be improved in China, but also advance the field of climate governance by introducing new perspectives where bottom-up climate experimentation coexists with top-down governance in an authoritarian rather than democratic context.
    Effective start/end date1/01/1830/06/21

    UN Sustainable Development Goals

    In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

    • SDG 1 - No Poverty
    • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
    • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
    • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
    • SDG 13 - Climate Action


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