Decentralized climate governance and policy implementation in China: Unraveling a paradox

Project: Research project

Project Details


Although China is an authoritarian and unitary state, its governance system has become increasingly decentralized. Almost all climate policies formulated by the central government are implemented by local governments, which are empowered to (re)make important policy decisions to adapt central directives to local contexts. However, the implications of this governance structure for the country’s climate mitigation effort are unclear. Some studies argue that decentralization has been critical to successful climate policy implementation because it provides local officials the necessary autonomy to develop tailor-made policy solutions. Others contend that local governments have become the main barrier to effective climate governance because of their recalcitrant behaviors and implementation slippage. These contrasting arguments are both supported by empirical evidence, which represents an important paradox that this research aims to resolve. The presence of two different views indicates that significant variations occur in climate policy implementation in China, which is characterized by a mixture of successful implementation and policy failure. However, previous studies are mostly single-case studies that focus on a single policy at a single location, and few studies have sufficiently considered how and why implementation varies.

In response, this project involves the development of new conceptual tools and the rigorous collection of data through a comparative approach to study climate policy implementation in China. A conceptual framework has been developed to systematically analyze local implementation responses. The framework consists of five interrelated dimensions, including (1) the tractability of the policy problem, (2) policy ambiguity, (3) implementation capacity, (4) interest alignment and (5) central-local relations. For data collection, we will examine the implementation of three central climate policies: industrial energy conservation, building energy retrofit, and photovoltaics poverty alleviation. Furthermore, fieldwork will be conducted in four provinces (Jilin, Gansu, Shanxi, and Jiangsu) that represent China’s four main economic zones. This project is therefore a unique comparative study of different policies and locations. An international research team with diverse expertise and substantial experience in undertaking fieldwork in China has been formed to implement this project.

The main contribution of the project is to improve our understanding of China’s climate governance, which has primarily focused on the formulation of climate policies rather than their actual implementation. Based on this knowledge, we can make sound practical recommendations to improve China’s climate mitigation performance from a policy and governance perspective.
Effective start/end date1/01/1930/06/22

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 2 - Zero Hunger
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 15 - Life on Land


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