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Reducing air pollution, a leading cause of death, has become a critical goal worldwide. However, the degree of success has varied greatly, even in the same locality over time. Theories and empirical studies so far mainly explain the static existence of pollution. The major social science explanations for the existence of pollution are: (1) sacrificing environmental quality at the altar of the economy; (2) pursuing short-sighted environmental planning; and (3) exploiting information asymmetry to weaken environmental monitoring and enforcement. However, they do not explain the systematic temporal variation in environmental policy implementation. This book fills this critical gap and takes a different view than the existing works regarding several factors that explain reported changes in air quality, namely the manipulation of air quality data by subnational officials and the effect of ad hoc, top-down implementation campaigns on actual air quality. The rest of the chapter provides an overview of the mixed methods used, intended audiences, and a roadmap for the book.
PM2.5 has more complex sources and formation processes than SO2, creating a greater regulatory challenge. The chapter lays out new policies and standards to curb PM2.5. Shen then uses both satellite-based and officially reported data on PM2.5 concentration to examine its interplay with growth, stability, and regulation. Officially reported data reflect what subordinate leaders wish their superiors to know, while satellite-based data are more objective. The results show that before PM2.5 control entered promotion criteria, local leaders were incentivized to gradually order laxer regulation of polluters during their tenure for social stability and (reported) economic gains, resulting in political pollution waves. However, after certain prefectures’ evaluation criteria incorporated gradually more aggressive PM2.5 reduction, political pollution waves continued based on satellite-based statistics, though officially reported local monitor readings seemed to suggest much-attenuated pollution waves. Thus, changing incentives of local cadres and monitoring was insufficient to dampen PM2.5 pollution waves. The nature and complexity of individual pollutants matter for effective regulation.
The concluding chapter highlights the key finding that local political incentives can cause powerful, systematic policy waves independent of top-down implementation campaigns. To demonstrate the theory’s applicability beyond China, this chapter examines air pollution trends in municipalities in Mexico. Like local political leaders in autocratic China pleasing their superiors for promotion, local politicians in democratic Mexico face incentives to cater to the desires of their constituents and bolster their political parties. Shen finds a significant peak in PM2.5 concentration level due to regulatory forbearance in municipalities during gubernatorial election years. The chapter demonstrates that across countries and regime types local leaders may opt for laxer regulation to achieve career goals. Yet, environmental policies are not always sacrificed to economic development, employment, and stability. This book’s findings are timely for policymakers and academics studying the determinants of effective regulation and illuminate a solution centering on cooperation between scientists and policymakers to effectively manage complex pollutants.
What are the normative implications of political regulation waves? Based on quantitative counterfactual estimation and qualitative case description, this chapter assesses the hard tradeoffs imposed by political regulation waves – between social stability, employment, economic growth, and health and longevity among local populations. Local leaders face incentives to signal competence by promoting laxer environmental regulation to benefit jobs and the economy, imposing a measurable human cost due to dirtier air. Conversely, when local leaders seek to move up the political ladder by strengthening the implementation of regulations in pursuit of blue skies, air quality improves, but firms suffer profit losses, and many people lose their jobs and are forced to spend brutal winters without heating. One form of the political regulation wave is not inherently better than another. These are difficult tradeoffs.
Policymakers in China have paid attention to SO2 emissions reduction since the 1990s, as adverse environmental effects such as acid rain devastated large parts of the country. Shen empirically tests the “political regulation wave” theory based on temporal patterns in SO2 regulation between 2001 and 2010. During this time, reduction targets were nonbinding during 2001-5 but binding during 2006-10. Since SO2 emissions management entails a low level of ambiguity, regulatory efforts translate well into regulatory effectiveness. Results based on official data from statistical yearbooks and on satellite-based statistics concur that top prefectural leaders whose prefectures received high reduction targets were incentivized to produce an incremental yet steady decrease in regulation during 2001-5 to accommodate economic and stability goals, consistent with theoretical predictions. Later, when binding SO2 reduction targets became tied to local leaders’ career prospects, they fostered a more consistent regulatory implementation during their tenures.
This chapter presents a new incentive-based theory to explain the systematic variation in regulatory stringency over time, which Shen calls the theory of “the political regulation wave.” It is intended to be a general theory with three scope conditions. First, in a decentralized political system, local leaders or politicians possess discretion over decision-making, resource allocation, and control over the bureaucracy. Second, local politicians or political leaders are incentivized to prioritize different policy goals throughout their tenure, per what their constituencies or political superio+L2rs prefer, to maximize their chances of reelection or promotion. Third, implementation of the policy is high conflict and low ambiguity in nature, so it takes on a political character. China’s air pollution control policies for sulfur dioxide (SO2) satisfy all scope conditions, while fine particulate matter (PM2.5) control satisfies the first two but entails some level of ambiguity. Nevertheless, the two empirical cases provide an interesting comparison. Shen derives three testable implications for SO2 and PM2.5 control in China.
This chapter explains how governance, especially local governance, happens in China. It expands upon China’s hierarchical political structure and its environmental governance system, highlighting the local environmental protection bureau (EPB)’s low rank and dilemma of having two principals—upper-level EPB and local government. Utilizing field interviews with key local actors and referencing public and internal policy documents, Shen lays out a broad range of factors considered when superiors make promotion decisions, such as competency, performance, and character factors. Crucially, Shen finds that local political leaders are expected to implement critical policies like economic growth steadily and incrementally during their tenure, with later years’ performance being more critical for promotion evaluation. The chapter concludes by exploring the pathways through which local leaders influence regulatory stringency to promote different priorities and targets, with promotions in mind.
Why has there been uneven success in reducing air pollution even in the same locality over time? This book offers an innovative theorization of how local political incentives can affect bureaucratic regulation. Using empirical evidence, it examines and compares the control of different air pollutants in China-an autocracy-and, to a lesser extent, Mexico-a democracy. Making use of new data, approaches, and techniques across political science, environmental sciences, and engineering, Shen reveals that local leaders and politicians are incentivized to cater to the policy preferences of their superiors or constituents, respectively, giving rise to varying levels of regulatory stringency during the leaders' tenures. Shen demonstrates that when ambiguity dilutes regulatory effectiveness, having the right incentives and enhanced monitoring is insufficient for successful policy implementation. Vividly explaining key phenomena through anecdotes and personal interviews, this book identifies new causes of air pollution and proposes timely solutions. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
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