Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2020, President Xi Jinping declared that China would peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. This climate pledge is widely considered the most ambitious of any country to date, especially since China—the world’s largest carbon-emitting nation—is still developing its economy and has not yet achieved its emissions peak. With COP26 on the horizon, the world is eager to find out new moves from the Chinese leadership. In this commentary, I posit that while pledges from China’s top national leadership are important, having the right local incentives and reducing local regulatory ambiguity are central to achieving those goals. I argue that there is good reason to be optimistic, and I will discuss how China’s approach to air pollution can offer useful lessons for its ongoing efforts to curb carbon emissions.
As the saying goes, all policy implementation is local; that cannot be truer for China. By some measures, China has one of the world’s most decentralized political systems and local leaders play a pivotal role in implementing national policies. China’s political personnel management system, also known as the nomenklatura, provides incentives for local leaders to meet targets to increase their chances of promotion. My forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, The Political Regulation Wave: A Case of How Local Incentives Systematically Shape Air Quality in China, studies connections between local leaders’ efforts to reduce emissions of particular air pollutants and these leaders’ incentives for promotion. Making use of new data, approaches, and techniques from across political science, environmental sciences, and engineering, my study shows that local leaders ordered different levels of air pollutant regulation based on what their political superiors desired.
Leaders’ incentives for promotion heavily influence their attempts to regulate pollutants. However, the actual effectiveness of their efforts depends on the level of ambiguity involved in controlling a particular pollutant, especially the complexity of a pollutant’s emissions sources and formation processes. The book explores this by comparing the case of controlling sulfur dioxide (SO2) to that of controlling fine particulate matter (PM2.5). SO2 is generated primarily by the industrial sector and is straightforward to control by installing and operating specialized “scrubbers.” By contrast, the sources of PM2.5 span a wide range of sectors and it is often created via complex secondary formations, making the management of its concentration both ambiguous and challenging.
The findings suggest that the incentives fostered by the promotion evaluation system, coupled with concrete annual targets and clear assignment of leaders’ responsibility, can be highly effective in achieving desired pollution control results. However, when ambiguity dilutes regulatory effectiveness, having the right incentives and enhanced monitoring is insufficient for successful and consistent policy implementation. In the localities that I studied, leaders reduced PM2.5 pollution in absolute terms, but the ambiguities involved produced an uneven level of pollution over time—the titular “wave” of regulation and pollution. These findings demonstrate that efforts to both understand and reduce the ambiguity associated with controlling a complex air pollutant are extremely important.
What lessons can China’s past experience with containing SO2 and PM2.5 offer its ongoing efforts to curb carbon emissions? On the bright side, the nomenklatura system will likely once again prove useful in incentivizing local leaders to take actions to achieve national goals. However, for local efforts to be effective, it is critical to reduce ambiguity in two forms—the ambiguity of goals and the ambiguity of means. First, integrating climate goals into short-term plans and clearly assigning concrete responsibility can set up the desired incentive structure for local leaders and reduce the ambiguity of goals for individual actors. Second, reducing ambiguity of means—inventorying carbon emissions, specifying how reduction happens, and having accountability mechanisms—will be key.
Implementing carbon reduction policies is, in some respects, more ambiguous than reducing air pollution. A basic and first-degree challenge is measuring the amount of carbon an organization emits. Concentration of various air pollutants can be readily measured by monitoring stations or derived from satellite observations, safeguarding information quality to a certain extent from false reporting by cities and organizations. Verifying carbon emissions, on the other hand, is less straightforward and can vary substantially depending on the methodology. While this challenge is universal, it could be aggravated in China, as local actors can easily come up with “countermeasures” to make themselves look good in the face of a new evaluation scheme that prizes sustainability. Hence, a unified methodology for individual sectors and ways to monitor reporting accuracy will be critical.
In addition, lessons from China’s experience battling air pollution show that it will be important for national policymakers to specify the means of achieving low-carbon development. For example, research has shown that some cities in China artificially boost the reported number of “Blue Sky Days” by strategically shifting air quality monitors to low-pollution regions. While there does not appear to be as much literature yet about official misreporting of carbon emissions statistics, it is reasonable to assume that it is happening. Similarly, lack of specificity regarding ways to reduce emissions has allowed some localities to use carbon-intensive means to create the façade of being low-carbon. This has occurred in some low-carbon experimental cities. For example, a city installed grass to expand green space in public areas, which is highly visible even though growing and maintaining grass can be highly carbon-intensive.
To summarize, China’s previous experience with fighting air pollution shows that incentives provided by the nomenklatura personnel management system can be conducive to local implementation of national goals, which bodes well for the country’s new ambition of becoming carbon-neutral. However, there are important caveats—mainly the need to reduce regulatory ambiguity. With its long-standing, target-oriented policy implementation scheme, the ambiguity of goals is less of a worry than the ambiguity of means. Reducing the ambiguity of means would require clear methodologies and procedures in inventorying carbon emissions, specifying how reduction happens for individual sectors, and maintaining accountability mechanisms.