Featuring traits of intergovernmental collaboration (IGR), MLG confronts various types of conflicts between governments (Huxham & Vangen, 2005). While IGR often looks at a few governmental agencies at the same level, MLG is prone to encounter more difficulties in making a deep, non-transactional collaboration as it involves governmental entities from two or more hierarchical levels (Ongaro et al., 2019). The network is constituted by a hierarchical structure extending beyond nation state countries and also extending to lower elements of the political and jurisdictional level. On each governance level, autonomous processes with their own dynamics are running, but these processes are also mutually connected or nested. In this complex and nested system, cross-level linkages have increased participants’ interactions and conflicts in building up joint actions (Duit & Galaz, 2008; Popering-Verkerk et al., 2015). Two questions then arise that need to be explored. First, what types of conflicts is MLG likely to encounter? Second, how do MLG actors address or cope with such conflicts?
This study borrows the concept of conflict from the work of Lan (1997), regarding conflicts as the opposing/differentiated ideas and actions of different entities that may ‘result in potentially destructive effects’ on collaboration outcomes. Conflict resolution literature classifies conflict into subjective conflict (e.g., cognitive conflict) and objective conflict (e.g., behavior conflicts) (Lan, 1997). Conflict resolution strategies are thus different due to the nature of conflicts. Drawing on the theories of conflict resolution and collaborative governance (Emerson et al., 2012; Piatak et al., 2018), the following section provides clues to understanding three types of conflicts in MLG and discusses the role of key actors in conflict-solving in MLG networks.
Conflicts in problem framing
MLG has been applied to remedy complex public problems with multiple actors. These actors normally have a different understanding of problem framing, from problem definition and root causes to acceptable goals and solutions. These conflicts may manifest as competing aims among actors (Huxham & Vangen, 2005) or as difficulties in gaining agreement on the definitions of and solutions to problems. MLG thus encounters conflicts regarding perceptions of problems, given that multiple institutional logics (Herranz, 2008) and accountability relationships (Thomson & Perry, 2006) often embody conflicting values. As Hoornbeek and Peters (2017) make clear, if a ‘wrong’ definition is adopted, it may mean that the ultimate ‘solution’ will be delayed or missed altogether. The CGR model thus calls for an iterative process for collaboration partners to build shared meaning and foster principled engagement, a key dimension of collaborative dynamics. Principled engagement consists of four basic process elements: discovery, definition, deliberation, and determination, in which initial success of discovery and definition is essential to the subsequent procedure.
Achieving principled engagement among participants is never easy for a controversial issue. Climate change is a ‘wicked’ problem exhibiting problematic characteristics including scientific uncertainty, public ambivalence, and significant lag in the effects of policy interventions (Jordan et al., 2015). It is highly cross-sectoral and cuts across jurisdiction borders, challenging the established institutional frameworks and having few obvious solutions. Because a self-reinforcing path dependency spiral determines the way people frame the problems, actors in MLG often struggle to frame the climate change issue within problems that suit their pre-existing political interests or policy competences (e.g., framing it as an energy, health, technology, or diplomatic policy). In that way, conflicts in problem framing may challenge accountability, because it determines the extent to which MLG is responsive to the claims of all authorizers and stakeholders (Page et al., 2018).
Uneven development and power imbalances across regions and scales also add to the challenges in building shared meaning of climate change governance. The breadth and complexity of the climate change issue span such a huge number of different sub-issues—ranging from poverty alleviation in less-developed places to long-term energy supply decisions in industrialized counties—that normal channels of inter- and intra-state policymaking struggle to cope. Policymakers and implementers may have distinct perceptions and definitions of climate issues due to their different socio-political environments. Ultimately the choice of how the climate change problem is handled within a jurisdiction is a reflection of the strength of the interests and power of the actors who define the problem. That has culminated in slow and sometimes even deadlocked negotiations at the international level (Biermann et al., 2016).
In addition to horizontal regional differences, conflicts in problem perception are generated across governance levels. Understanding climate issues requires consideration of the social construction of appropriate levels by institutions to further their own aims. An action that is successful for one level of government may not be classed as successful by another. For example, supranational/national actors (e.g., the European Commission or China) might be more concerned about the political and diplomatic attributes of international climate cooperation. On the other hand, for localities, climate governance is more related to environmental, economic, and social well-being. Such vertical differences in problem discovery and definition might debase future deliberation and determination, and thus hamper joint potential to achieve collaborative advantage (Huxham & Vangen, 2005).
Therefore, like-minded actors from different levels with their compatible belief systems are important elements of effective MLG. Conflicts in problem framing are normally subjective conflicts where explanations, communication, provision of scientific information, consensus-building, and rapport-building can effectively contribute to the resolution of the conflict. In CGR models, Emerson and Nabatchi (2015) highlight conflict resolution skills as requisite competencies for principled engagement as people have ‘differing substantive, relational, and identity goals to collaborate’ and solve problems (p. 58). These conflict resolution skills may include articulating common purposes and objectives, or clarifying and adjusting tasks and expectations for one another.
Conflicts in benefit sharing
The second dimension of collaborative dynamics in the CGR model is shared motivation, which focuses on how governance outcomes may benefit participants and the organization or constituency they represent (Emerson et al., 2012). The shared motivation component is a self-reinforcing and cyclical progression of four interactive elements: trust, mutual understanding, internal legitimacy, and commitment.
Trust and mutual understanding are essential to establish ‘boundary works’ that eliminate differences, address tensions, and facilitate communication and interaction across different levels (Piatak et al., 2018; Quick & Feldman, 2014). Actors in an MLG system have both common and diverse goals, while intrinsic tension between self-interest (e.g., economic development) and a collective interest (e.g., global carbon emission reduction) always exists (Thomson & Perry, 2006). Even with the hope of achieving a Pareto optimal improvement, winning and losing is an inescapable aspect of governing. Trust is a sine qua non for boundary works and is instrumental in reducing transaction costs of repeated interactions, improving stability in relations, and stimulating learning. Trust enables people to go beyond their own personal, institutional, and jurisdictional frames of reference and perspectives and toward understanding other peoples’ interests, needs, values, and constraints (Thomson & Perry, 2006). If the structure of cross-scale linkages reduces trust, then the robustness of an MLG network is in question.
The persistence and stability of collaboration also depend on the distribution of benefits from these cross-level linkages, which is demonstrated by the ability of the system to command legitimacy among participants. To promote a common vision and achieve accountability with all actors, an MLG system needs to reinforce confidence in internal legitimacy that enables participants to justify their continuing engagement to those they represent. An efficient MLG network thus has to choose which costs and benefits to take into account. But it would be difficult to decide how to allocate them and whether any losers should be compensated. Carbon trading for example, as a redistributive climate mitigation policy, indicates efforts to shift the allocation of wealth, income, property, or rights between countries (Caplan et al., 2003). If the intended losers in redistributive policies are the ‘haves’ (e.g., developed countries with the financial and technology resources to purchase carbon credits), they also have ample resources to resist such policies. Meanwhile, given the long-term benefits of environmental investments, it would be imprudent to assume sellers of carbon credits are the winners, because the performance of green financing or technology transfer often takes years to have effect. These challenges and conflicts in legitimizing participants’ benefits distribution may thus hamper their commitment in future collaboration.
Conflict in benefit sharing is normally a mixed conflict in which conflicting parties may gain by cooperating around some common interests while competing for resources that come only at the expense of the other (Brickman, 1974). Conflict resolution techniques, such as clarification of benefits and costs, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, bargaining, and alternative choice provision, can be used. In the CGR model, shared motivation can be achieved through facilitating the alignment of presumably conflicting goals within a hierarchy and keeping all actors, with relevant and significant different interests, accountable and satisfied with the governance outcomes (Romzek et al., 2012). Accountable benefits sharing is instrumental in enhancing trust between actors, as well as essential for improving stability in relations and stimulating the exchange of knowledge and information (Koppenjan & Klijn, 2004). Actors’ compatible and interdependent interests legitimize and motivate on-going collaborative actions and determine the performance of MLG.
Conflicts in capacity building
MLG intends to generate outcomes that no one level of governance could accomplish individually. However, to collaborate, MLG actors must generate enhanced or new capacities for joint action that did not previously exist. Capacity building enables MLG actors to accomplish their collective purpose. Capacity for joint action is the third and last dimension of collaborative dynamics. Borrowed from Emerson et al.’s (2012: p. 68) definition in the CGR model, capacity for joint action is composed of procedural and institutional arrangements, resources, leadership, and knowledge.
Capacity for joint action can be highly asymmetric with the powerful often obtaining more. Asymmetrical capacity exists between the international and subnational levels (provinces, cities), and conflicts associated with these asymmetries may eventually undermine governance structures. Sub-national governments are essential in MLG, as they are where international and national policies unfold and de facto implemented, and closer to where the consequences of climate change will be felt. However, due to the lack of motivation and capacity, subnational levels remain marginal in supranational or national policy decisions. As national governments are those that generally have an international commitment to climate policy, subnational governments may leave these policies to the upper levels or make more efforts to reach out to the national level for help. Overloaded with other local demands, subnational governments may put climate governance lower on their list of priorities, especially when lacking formal administrative institutions (Oliveira, 2009). The logic of economic rationality makes subnational governments more motivated to be the free-riders in global climate governance (as public goods). They have no incentive to implement certain climate policies if others do not, and they also lack the leadership to leverage and redistribute the shared knowledge and resources to effect common goals (Kousky & Schneider, 2003).
Examining cross-level dynamics could entail the challenge of integrating knowledge produced at differing scales that are characterized by quite disparate disciplinary approaches. The limited capacity of the subnational governments in MLG has concerned both scholars and practitioners (Ter-Minassian, 2020). Evidence shows that due to restricted cash flow, most local governments in the least-developed countries are not able to contribute effectively to climate change governance (Jachson & Coninck, 2019). Capacity building for subnational governments is determined by the availability of different forms of knowledge and resources, including but not limited to financial, political, and human resources (Ostrom, 2011; Williams et al., 2020). Embedded in local capacity building are associated values such as flexibility (possibly more achievable at local levels), accountability (public engagement is often harder to organize at higher spatial scales), and transparency (which is possibly easier to achieve locally).
Conflicts in capacity building pertain to ‘cooperation conflicts’ 1997, which refer to a situation in which the rewards and punishments that can accrue to each party are non-competitive (Lan, 1997: p. 29). Conflicts are more about how to achieve the goal. In a ‘shared power’ world there is a need for coordination between various levels of governments. An effective MLG system should facilitate the flow of resources across levels and jointly needed knowledge to be generated together. Knowledge and other resources need to be disseminated among a network of actors. The perceived and real fairness, legitimacy, and efficacy of MLG would depend on how well these capacity differences are managed.
Who could be the conflict resolver?
Conflicts as discussed above call for connective or integrative efforts to coordinate and synchronize joint actions from different levels (Chrislip, 2002; Crosby & Bryson, 2010). Who, then, could be the conflict resolver?
MLG features shared decision-making power across governance levels, but scholars differ when it comes to which level is the most influential. Some imply that the engagement and influence of all actors in MLG is equal, no level of activity being superior to another (Stephenson, 2013), while a greater number argue that MLG strengthens, or at least retains the power of nation governments (Hale & Roger, 2014; Yang et al., 2021). Gillard et al. (2017) and Tompkins et al. (2002) provided evidence confirming how national government actors are able to steer climate governance networks in their own favor by withholding access to information and resources. However, in the past decade, we have witnessed that in the absence of national leadership (e.g., the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement), sub-national authorities have had high hopes in taking climate action as they are directly accountable to their constituents for their decisions, and are more nimble than state and national elected officials in taking decisive action. Linking the subnational and the international might sound promising, but in practice it is a highly complex process. Whether and how national governments, as key actors with dominating leadership, should maintain the roles of conflict resolver, facilitator, decision maker, sponsor, and expert to facilitate effective governance, deserved further discussion (Emerson & Nabachi, 2015).
Described above are three types of conflict that might emerge in MLG and the hypothetical role of a national government in resolving conflict. To examine the applicability of the analytical framework and a real-world example of conflict resolution, the following sections focus on the implementation of the CDM using China as an empirical case. The MLG system of CDM governance in China will be introduced first and then be followed by a discussion on the three types of conflict generated between the international and subnational levels. The findings highlight the role of the Chinese national government in resolving conflicts during the governing process.
The clean development mechanism (CDM) in China
The CDM is a climate governance mechanism written under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 2006). Defined in Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, the CDM allows a country with an emissions reduction or emissions-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to implement an emissions reduction project in developing countries. Such projects can earn saleable certified emissions reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one ton of CO2, which can be counted toward meeting Kyoto targets. The design of this mechanism enables developing countries to gain assistance in the form of capacity, technology transfers, and financial flow to promote local SD through increasing job opportunities, facilitating renewable energy use, and raising climate change consciousness, among other things. In exchange, CERs are issued to developed countries to help them meet their responsibilities in emissions reduction (Shrivastava & Bhaduri, 2019).
Although the implementation of the CDM has been criticized for skewed participation and unjust distribution of benefits (Torvanger et al., 2013), the implementation of the CDM in China has been successful. As the largest host country for CDM projects, China registered more than 5000 CDM projects between 2005 and 2014, spread across 30 provinces. An MLG network supported the implementation of the CDM in China; it consisted of the UNFCCC Secretariat, the CDM Executive Board, and Designated Operational Entity (DOE) at the international level; the Designated National Authority (DNA) and The National Leadership Group on Climate Change, and National Clean Development Mechanism Committee at the national level; and project developers, provincial governments, consulting companies, and research institutions at subnational levels. Table 1 summaries the key actors and their duties in the MLG network.
Despite taking on the largest share of projects around the globe, China has encountered multiple conflicts in problem framing, benefit sharing, and capacity building across jurisdictional levels during CDM implementation. These require a governance system able to manage and resolve conflicts across multiple scales and among diverse policy actors. Because the central government retains key steering power in cross-level interactions, this study will focus on the role of central government in conflict resolution.
The author collected both quantitative and qualitative data to understand different types of conflicts in the MLG networks and how a national government may act as a conflict resolver to facilitate governance. Quantitative data regarding CDM projects in mainland China were extracted from a global CDM dataset. By identifying the location of each project through its Project Design Documents, the author obtained a dataset of 4429 cases for the period from 2004 to 2015 (after excluding those with missing or incomplete information). Qualitative data were extracted from policies, documents, project papers, meeting minutes, and records from the UNFCCC. The content analysis of qualitative data provided preliminary data that were used for substantiation and enrichment in the interviews. Data for other economic, socio-political, and demographic contextual variables were obtained from the China Statistical Yearbook, the China Environmental Yearbook, and other sources.