Governmental Structure and Climate Policy


How does governmental structure affect climate policy and its implementation?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

Climate policy is anything but simple, and its implementation can prove even more difficult. In thinking about why some countries have succeeded in implementing green policies and others have struggled, one consideration is the structure of government. Of particular interest is how government structure enables or stymies a country’s ability to address climate change. Today’s post looks at two countries (China and Germany) to see how each country’s institutional framework impacts climate policy.

The Chinese government is often associated with centrally-mandated, authoritarian rule, sometimes envisioned from a distance as a cartoonish and impossibly large fist pounding orders onto the desk of some hapless provincial official. While China does have a hierarchical system, this does not necessarily translate to Beijing as dictator and provincial governments as mere policy implementers. Indeed, some policies, like economic growth, do occupy agendas at every level of government, whereas other policies, like environmental protection, have created underwhelming results that fail to meet central goals.

One of the key impediments in China is the presence of “horizontal” and “vertical” lines of authority. For example, the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), one of the ministries in the central government, oversees each provincial Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, each provincial EPA (considered a “vertical” line of authority), is under the authority of the NEPA and the provincial government in which it resides (considered the “horizontal” authority). The intersection of these two lines of power obviously has the potential for conflict, as provincial authorities frequently have the economic and social/political interests of their province in mind rather than the NEPA’s interests. Adding to this clash is the fact that reforms in the late 70s gave territorial governments priority over “vertical” authority like the EPA.

While this does not mean provincial governments can do as they like, it does mean that ministries like the NEPA “have had their wings clipped” in lower-priority issues. 1 If an issue is high priority, failure to thoroughly implement associated policy can result in firing, fines, etc. China’s birth control policy is one such example where implementation was strict and thorough. The environment, unfortunately, has not yet attained such status, and local authorities have thus far been able to more loosely enforce centrally-mandated policies.

On the other end of the spectrum, many researchers feel Germany’s electoral system has been crucial to the Green Party gaining more seats and subsequently implementing strong environmental policies. The German system, called mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), gives voters two votes. One vote is for a specific candidate from their district and another vote is for a party. The party of the individual candidate does not have to be the same as the party chosen in the second vote. Once votes are tallied, half the seats in the Bundestag are filled by the first vote and the other half by the second vote. Seats in the second vote are filled proportionally based on the percentage that each party received.

This contrasts with winner-take all systems like that of the U.S. and U.K., which discount the votes of those who does not choose the candidate with the majority of votes. This can be seen clearly in the U.K. In the 2010 election, when all votes nation-wide are broken down by party, candidates from the Green Party received 284,823, candidates from The Democratic Unionists 168,216.2 Yet because the UK does not employ the MMP system, the Green Party received 1 seat and the Democratic Unionists received 8.

In conjunction with its voting system, an important and defining feature of Germany’s political system is an emphasis on consensus and the use of outside consultants/stakeholders to aide in policy making. This feature has been crucial to the country’s response to global warming, where Green presence helped shape subsequent policies. In fact, after slowly gaining influence, the Greens formed the so-called red-green alliance with the Social Democratic Party from 1998 to 2005,sharing rule at the federal level. This alliance was instrumental in many of the country’s forward-looking climate policies.

While Germany and China are quite different, each’s climate policy has been impacted by structural issues. From a climate change perspective, Germany has been positively influenced at the front-end of its political process by MMP, China negatively so at the end of the political process, where local officials’ lack incentive to implement. At the end of the day though, both structures rely heavily on public support. If Germans did not support mitigation, the system would not support policies to mitigate. And despite western notions that the Chinese government is completely unresponsive to public opinion, researchers note that the government is demonstrating increasing openness to reform and public opinion.3 While public opinion may be the ultimate prize, understanding how institutional factors can more readily facilitate these opinions is still of value

1 Lieberthal, Kenneth “China’s Governing System and its Impacts on Environmental Policy Implementation” China Environment Series (1997) 4

2 2010 General Elections Results Summary Accessed April 18 2012

3 Leonard, Mark. Interview with Geraldine Doogue. Saturday Extra on Radio Nation (3 January 2009) Accessed online


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