Integrating Top-down and Bottom-up Multilevel Environmental Governance: Enhancing the Power of Soft Regulations in the U.S. and China

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In sustainability and climate change planning, a critical problem is: how do we turn sustainability from symbolic planning vision to actual actions? Despite their critical role in climate and sustainability solutions, local governments worldwide generally lack capacity and accountability to establish appropriate targets and adopt comprehensive measures for sustainability. This often requires a higher-level authority to mitigate conflicts, redistribute resources, and coordinate across functions and administrations. My dissertation explores how different multilevel factors influence local governments’ decision-making and implementation of sustainability plans and policies in different institutional contexts. The three papers in this dissertation together address the academic blind eye to soft regulations - the plans – in a multilevel environmental governance framework. This dissertation also situates the role of citizens in the decision-making and implementation of sustainability plans and policies. It seeks to answer the following two questions: Given the different social political contexts in the U.S. and China, how can local governments’ actions be motivated in sustainability and climate change? What might be the roles of citizens in local decision-making and implementation? In the U.S., the Federal government has generally been absent from climate leadership and few states attempt to mandate local government climate change actions. The autonomy that local governments maintain in climate mitigation thus presents a more bottom-up mode of vertical interactions that relies more on public participation to coproduce public goods. In China, although the authoritarian regime traditionally tends to rely more on a coercive approach to enhance local compliance, it has relied on environmental campaigns and mobilization of the public to address the environmental crisis and enhance local environmental performance. To see how countries with such different hierarchical structures respond to complex environmental problems, this dissertation uses studies of climate change in the US context and air quality control in the Chinese context. Chapter two in this dissertation provides a comprehensive account of local factors that influence local government sustainability actions in the U.S., with a particular focus on the role of sustainability plans. In this chapter, I track 651 U.S. local governments’ adoption of 34 sustainability actions from 2010 to 2015 using sustainability surveys conducted by International City/County Management Association (ICMA). The major finding in this chapter shows that sustainability plans are most effective in spurring local sustainability actions when they are newly created. However, this initiation impact in motivating actions wanes over time. Promoting continued adoption of sustainability actions requires a comprehensive approach with attention to political support, public participation, social equity, interdepartmental coordination, and local capacity. This chapter shows the limitation of local governments’ sustainability planning and calls for a multilevel governance framework to motivate local government actions. Chapter three develops a framework to unpack the role of the state on climate mitigation actions:state climate action planning, state regulatory policies on energy, and state politics. Hypotheses are tested using a 2015 ICMA sustainability survey of 1899 U.S. local governments with logistic and negative binomial regression. The empirical models show that given the lack of federal leadership and state coercive measures on local governments, the role of the states in local climate mitigation is somewhat symbolic. State climate action planning is associated with more local mitigation actions, but it does not leverage a more comprehensive local climate agenda, such as local plan-making. State regulatory policies on energy do not motivate local governments to take more climate mitigation actions. This paper reveals that non-coercive measures from higher-level governments are not enough to motivate local climate actions. Although qualitative interviews in this chapter show that higher-level governments might be important as a resource provider, the reality is that local governments generally do not receive enough technical and financial support from the higher-level authorities to motivate local action. Chapter four examines the vertical interaction in China. The central government of China has adopted a series of plans, such as the 12th Five-Year Plan and Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution, to tackle climate change and air quality issues. Despite various mechanisms of central control, local environmental implementation has been quite a serious problem in China. This paper examines how the central government in China uses environmental campaigns to enhance local governments’ environmental performance in air quality control. I argue that environmental campaigns try to solve the non-compliance problem through two mechanisms: sanctions on local officials and mobilization of the public. I empirically test the impact of campaigns based on 2016 and 2017 Central Environmental Protection Inspection data. I divided the 332 cities into two groups – the 74 cities which have stronger central monitoring and the remaining 248 cities that have comparatively weaker central monitoring. Using panel regression and event study analysis, my results show that environmental campaigns do not improve air quality in the 248 cities with weaker central monitoring. For the 74 cities with strong central monitoring, the impact is only short term. The heterogenous impacts suggest that sanctions on local officials do not increase the impact of the campaigns in the long term. What makes the campaigns more effective in the long term is the level of public mobilization. The three chapters together demonstrate the importance of integrating top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in promoting local government sustainability actions and outcomes. In the U.S., given lack of higher-level government coercion in climate change, the role of states in motivating local government actions tends to be quite symbolic. While in China, the authoritarian regime is generally considered as more capable of using coercive mechanisms to enforce its agenda, the central government has relied on environmental campaigns, particularly mobilization of the public, to enhance local governments’ environmental performance.

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177 pages


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Air Pollution; Climate Change; Multilevel Governance; Public Participation; Soft Regulations; Sustainability


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Warner, Mildred E.

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Li, Shanjun
Wallace, Jeremy Lee

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City and Regional Planning

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Ph. D., City and Regional Planning

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Doctor of Philosophy

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