Authoritarian Environmental Federalism

42 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2017 Last revised: 19 Jul 2018

Meir Alkon

Princeton University - Department of Political Science

Audrye Wong

Princeton University - Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Date Written: July 5, 2018


We develop a theory to explain the persistence of tensions between decentralized delegation and centralized control of environmental governance in authoritarian regimes. Benefits of decentralization – information, competition, and economic efficiency – conflict with goals of policy harmonization and management of inter-jurisdictional externalities. These persistent tensions between different levels of governance generate a de facto federalism, distinct from traditional models of formally-defined, de jure power-sharing. We test our theory of authoritarian environmental federalism using the case of China's power sector, drawing on evidence from primary source documents, field interviews, and multiple data sources on the development and distribution of generating capacity. The trajectories of coal-fired power and the integration of renewables into China's power sector have substantial implications for both domestic air pollution and for global climate change. This research has theoretical relevance for understanding environmental politics and governance in autocracies, and practical relevance for understanding China's environmental and energy policies.

Keywords: environmental governance, political economy, subnational actors, China, coal, renewable energy, central-local relations

Suggested Citation

Alkon, Meir and Wong, Audrye, Authoritarian Environmental Federalism (July 5, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Meir Alkon (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Corwin Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544-1013
United States

Audrye Wong

Princeton University - Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs ( email )

Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08544-1021
United States

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