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Climate transformation in ordinary cities in China

RSA Blog
RSA Blog Asia China

Earlier this month, the IPCC released the Working Group III contribution of its 6th Assessment Report, Mitigation of Climate Change. This report concludes, in unambiguous terms, that far-reaching climate action is needed now: “without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach.” The scientific community agrees that transformative action is needed to prevent dangerous and irreversible global warming. There is also consensus that such action needs to take place in cities. But, what does transformative climate action in urban areas look like? It is much less clear how transformative climate action in cities might be enabled or how just outcomes might be secured.


Re-centering the debate on climate transformation and action

In a keynote presentation for the first Early Career Plenary Panel of the Regional Studies Associations 2022 Conference, entitled “For an Urban Politics of Looking Elsewhere: Climate Action in Rapidly Growing Chinese Cities”, Linda Westman argued that we also lack insight into what forms of transformative climate action emerges beyond the ‘familiar’ settings of urban climate research. This presentation delivered results from the ERC-funded project LOACT and was based on a paper with the same title under review in the Journal of Planning Literature, co-authored with Vanesa Castán Broto and Ping Huang.

This team of scholars argue that research on urban climate action has ignored certain places. In particular, large, internationally well-connected cities have occupied the centre of debate, while small urban areas have received less attention. In addition, the literature is dominated by insights from Anglophone scholarship. To counter this trend, the researchers in the LOACT project have conducted a study on climate action in ‘ordinary cities’ in China, documenting opportunities for transformation in these urban areas.


Perspectives of transformation from “ordinary” experiences

The study reaches several conclusions. First, narratives of climate action permeate planning in cities of different sizes – they are not only concentrated in urban areas with pilot projects, flagship interventions, or in eco-cities. Second, cities differ in their practices of climate action. Urban climate action is shaped by histories, industrial profiles, natural endowments, societal demands, and local politics of each individual city. Third, the focus on ‘ordinary’ cities draws attention to aspects overlooked in analyses of shiny megacity projects. Planning strategies in these urban areas emphasize not only capital investment, but also institutional change and cultural change. In particular, it highlights citizen participation, which often remains invisible in research on urban climate action in China.

Overall, the interventions examined in this study were not transformative, at least not in the sense of enabling rapid, systemic change. But, many of the projects documented in the study make an enormous difference to individual lives, such as by addressing life conditions of poor communities.

Debates on climate transformation in China tend to be strongly focused on problems of scale and speed, linked with the size of the greenhouse emission reduction challenge in this country. In contrast, a focus on people’s life experiences implies a different perspective on transformation. A key insight from the LOACT project is that thinking of climate action from the perspective of the ordinary shows how the transformative is inseparable from the mundane; only innovation that derives from the everyday holds the possibility to deliver meaningful change.


Linda Westman is Research Associate at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield. Her work engages with the governance of climate change, cities, transformation, and justice.

Vanesa Castán Broto is a Professorial Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield. Her research has been funded by the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, ESRC, EPSRC and the Institution of Civil Engineers. In 2016 she received the Philip Leverhulme Prize for contributions to Geography.

Ping Huang is a Research Associate at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield. Ping is a social scientist specializing in low-carbon innovation and climate governance, focusing on China and other less-developed economies.


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