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Theses Doctoral

Anti-Carbonism or Carbon Exceptionalism: A Discursive Project of Low-Carbon City in Shenzhen, China

Li, Yunjing

As the role of cities in addressing climate change has been increasingly recognized over the past two decades, the idea of a low-carbon city becomes a dominant framework to organize urban governance and envision a sustainable urban future. It also becomes a development discourse in the less developed world to guide the ongoing urbanization process.

China’s efforts toward building low-carbon cities have been inspiring at first and then obscured by the halt or total failure of famous mega-projects, leading to a conclusion that Chinese low-carbon cities compose merely a strategy of green branding for promoting local economy. This conclusion, however, largely neglects the profound implications of the decarbonization discourse for the dynamics between the central and local governments, which together determine the rules and resources for development practices. The conclusion also hinders the progressive potentials of the decarbonization discourse in terms of introducing new values and norms to urban governance.

This dissertation approaches “low-carbon cities” as a part of the decarbonization discourse and employs a discourse-institutional analysis to investigate the relationships between discourse, institutional arrangement, and socio-political resources for development activities. Through an examination of the Shenzhen International Low-Carbon City (SILCC), the dissertation answers three questions: (1) How does the framework of a low-carbon city affect a specific urban development project? (2) What is the role of the state (local/national) in promoting low-carbon development? and (3) What is the influence of the decarbonization discourse on institutions and norms of urban governance? Evidence was gathered during 2014-2017 from three fieldtrips, 39 interviews and the review of government documents and other archives.

The dissertation highlights how different levels of government became entangled in developing a local area and how, in doing so, the proponents continuously searched for ways of ‘positioning’ their initiative in discourses that would attract higher level government support, maintain local coalitions, and entice international attention and investment. In this regard, low-carbon cities are a state discursive project. Rather than an established material goal, a low-carbon city is an evolving process in which the decarbonization discourse introduces a new set of values, metrics and governing logics into development practices and redefines the legitimacy and accountability of urban development. Furthermore, the local state leverages the interpretive flexibility within the decarbonization discourse through strategies including carbon labeling, weak carbonization, and carbon exceptionalism. Consequently, the state takes a strategic position to reconfigure the state-society as well as the environment-economy relationships.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2021-03-11.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Sclar, Elliott
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 14, 2019