Project No: 16602319

Title: Collective Action Among Greater Pearl River Delta Cities to Reduce Regional Air Pollution

Principal Investigator: Prof. Gerald PATCHELL

Co-Investigator: Prof. Jimmy FUNG, Prof. Christine LOH, Prof. Kellee Sing TSAI, Prof. Xun WU


This proposed study will investigate the governance of air quality in the Greater Bay Area (GBA), including the greater Pearl River delta, from the perspective of common pool resource theory. Prior studies of air pollution in China have emphasized the role of national and provincial governments in issuing regulatory policies without consideration for barriers to collective action at the local level. By contrast, our study will focus on cities as key actors because they exercise substantial autonomy in interpreting and implementing directives from higher levels of government.

City-level autonomy allows for diverse municipal actions with varying consequences for the behavior of neighboring areas. Weak enforcement of pollution regulations in one or more cities may be interpreted by other cities as a form of freeriding and discourage collective efforts. On the other hand, when a city or cities act decisively, such leadership may stimulate greater efforts by neighboring cities. The methodological rationale for focusing on the GBA is because the region may be regarded as a "most difficult case" among China's mega-city regions for engaging in collective action. Five of the cities (Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau, Zhuhai and Guangzhou) have unusually high levels of autonomy, which in theory might be an obstacle to resolving common issues. Yet the GBA has had China's greatest success in controlling air pollution (Lin et al. 2018), and its cities have demonstrated environmental leadership (UCI 2017). Understanding how this occurred should reveal empirical and analytical insights with policy implications.

This project proposes to examine the evolution of collective action in the region through the following research tasks:

  • Producing a policy inventory of air pollution instruments put in place by the cities;
  • Determining the level of monitoring and enforcement of the instruments;
  • Measuring emission reductions; and
  • Revealing the vertical and horizontal structures, as well as any mechanisms of cooperation and competition that have evolved in the GBA's response to pollution.

Novel aspects of the study include investigating the dynamics that have been generated among national, provincial and city governments in their efforts to improve regional air quality; introducing collective action as a theoretical basis for managing air pollution in the GBA; and identifying policies that minimize freeriding and incentivize leadership. The cumulative impact of these contributions should be improved air quality, not only in the GBA, but also in other regions with strong and autonomous actors where collective action is required.