SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Low carbon innovation in China – prospects, politics and practice

To mitigate climate change worldwide we need to transform the way we power our homes, travel, and feed the planet’s ever-growing population. Nowhere is the approach to innovation across these sectors more crucial than in China, where decisions on these issues will impact the rest of the world.

With China throwing state support behind electric vehicles, solar energy and next-generation agricultural technologies, how do social and political issues impact on the successes and failures of low carbon innovations?

This 30 month research project, involving academics in SPRU; Dr Adrian Ely and Dr Sam Geall and other UK and Chinese institutions, aims to explore the extent, nature and social implications of low-carbon transitions in China and to compare government-led, high-tech “indigenous innovation” approaches with emergent, lower-tech approaches in the areas of agriculture, energy and mobility.


The research project uses interviews and focus groups to explore a series of questions across six case studies in the solar energy, agriculture and electric mobility sectors, namely:

  • Are low-carbon transitions emerging and why?
  • With what effects do these relate to broader processes of decarbonisation?
  • What socio-political changes are emerging in China with implications for these socio-technical systems and social practices, and what are these implications?
  • What lessons does China’s state-capitalist approach to low-carbon innovation offer UK industrial policy for a) low-carbon transition & b) globally competitive low-carbon industries?

Across these three sectors we adopt a variant of a ‘backward mapping’ methodology to compare and contrast differing framings/visions of system transition from innovators, consumers and users back to the visions elucidated in high-level regulatory/policy statements or company strategies. 

Impact and outreach

Project Briefing, November 2015
A short overview of the project’s findings: New approaches to low carbon innovation in China

Reports, February 2015
Four China Low Carbon Reports published:

Low-Carbon Innovation in China: Prospects, Politics and Practices (STEPS Working Paper 69 by David Tyfield, Adrian Ely, Frauke Urban, Sam Geall, Dennis Zuev and John Urry)
Pathways Towards Renewable Energy in China: Prospects, Politics and Practices (STEPS Working Paper 70 by Frauke Urban and Sam Geall)
Low Carbon Innovation in Chinese Urban Mobility: Prospects, Politics and Practices (STEPS Working Paper 71 by David Tyfield, Dennis Zuev, Ping Li and John Urry)
Pathways Towards Sustainable Maize Production and Consumption in China: Prospects, Politics and Practices (STEPS Working Paper 72 by Adrian Ely, Sam Geall and Yiching Song). 

In March 2015, Dr Geall was interviewed by The Guardian and Monocle 24, and wrote for China File, about "Under the Dome", an online documentary about air pollution that became extraordinarily popular across China.

In the light of the US-China climate announcement in November 2014, Dr Sam Geall has been involved in several media outputs, including an interview with Voice of America and:

The Conversation: What next for China after historic climate deal? This article was translated into Chinese and republished bilingually at chinadialogue: “What next for China after historic climate deal?”. It also appeared syndicated in The Straits TimesChina Digital Timesthe China Policy Institute blog, and the World Economic Forum blog.

Public Radio International’s (PRI) The World (summary of radio interview): Barack Obama and Xi Jinping look to a future with lower carbon emissions

Bloomberg Businessweek: In China-U.S. Climate Pact, Hope for Global Talks and Evidence of China's Shift

Besides conference papers, the project plans to publish at least eight academic articles in peer-reviewed journals; three short policy briefings summarizing key findings and recommendations; a major policy report, co-authored with and published by the Work Foundation, drawing out implications for UK institutional reform and industrial policies for low-carbon innovationa series of final project workshops in China and the UK, a project website with a social media strategy and a series of articles published by our media partner, chinadialogue.net.

Early outputs include the blogpost, “Why low carbon innovation matters” by Sam Geall in chinadialogue (13 January 2014) and “Citizens and science in a greener China” by Adrian Ely and David Tyfield, published by The Guardian (16 October 2013).

There is also a series of video overviews of the project areas: agriculture, energy and mobility, as well as a general overview.

Partners and Links

  • Principal Investigator: Prof. John Urry, Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe), Lancaster University, UK
  • Co-Investigator and Lead Co-ordinator: Dr. David Tyfield, CeMoRe, Lancaster University, UK
  • Co-Investigator: Dr. Frauke Urban, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), UK
  • Co-Investigator: Dr. Adrian Ely, STEPS Centre and SPRU – Science and Technology Policy Research (University of Sussex), UK
  • Co-Investigator: Dr. Yu WANG, Tsinghua University, China
  • Co-Investigator: Dr. Ping Li, Tsinghua University, China
  • Co-Investigator: Dr. Yiching Song, Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy, China
  • Research Fellow: Sam Geall, ChinaDialogue.net and SPRU – Science and Technology Policy Research (University of Sussex), UK
  • Research Associate: Dr.Dennis Zuev, Researcher at the Centre for Research and Studies in Sociology, CIES-ISCTE, Lisbon, Portugal and CeMoRe, Lancaster University, UK
  • Media partner: ChinaDialogue.net

Low carbon innovation in China project website