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Sustainability transitions and leapfrogging in latecomer cities : a case of the diffusion of solar thermal energy in China

Yu, Zhen


Zhen Yu


D. C. (David C.), 1955 Gibbs

Xiudian Dai


Sustainability transition has been a burgeoning research field and political practice due to its focus on the systemic and fundamental transformation of existing main human sectors to curb global climate change. The present thesis aims to contribute to the literature by investigating the potential of latecomer cities in sustainability transitions through a geographical lens. Inspired by the multi-level perspective, economic geography, and leapfrogging research, the thesis proposes to understand sustainability transitions as consequences of power struggles between niche development and regime resistance, and latecomer cities may have a higher potential for sustainability transitions as they are less locked-in by existing regimes and niche actors could be more powerful to direct desired changes. These ideas are explored through a qualitative investigation of the popularisation of solar thermal energy in a latecomer city, Dezhou, in contrast to a more developed counterpart, Beijing.

Though the global and national landscape of green development has exerted unprecedented pressures on lower governance scales, it is interpreted and responded to differently at the local level. Unlike the development of other renewable energies, the popularisation of solar thermal energy in China is primarily driven by market forces. It is only recently that government’s policies began to play a significant role. When this technology was encouraged to enter the urban market, it confronted many obstacles such as low technology profile, high-end consumer preferences, and conflict of interests among the main actors. However, these resisting factors have different purchase in cities at different development stages.

Dezhou’s transition to solar thermal energy is an interactive consequence of weak regime resistance (i.e. suitable building infrastructure, less hostile market selection, and less institutional inertia) and strong niche development with a positive feedback loop among a powerful lead industry, supportive government, networked users, and motivated estate developers. These interactions are conditioned by place-specific contexts, as well as multi-scalar interactions, through which knowledge learning, interest coordination, and empowering are realised by key niche champions such as green entrepreneurs and governments at the local level.

The findings of this thesis suggest that the global landscape of green development is repositioning the role of less developed regions in sustainability transitions. Latecomer cities, though weak in technology innovation, demonstrate several advantages over developed cities in transition to decentralized energy systems, as they are generally less locked-in by incumbent unsustainable regimes, and green niche actors within them could be more powerful in directing transitions if they are able to meet economic interests at the local level and environmental benefits at the higher scales. Local scalar-transcending actors are of pivotal significance for latecomer cities to pursue green transitions because they are the key mechanism whereby external knowledge, resources, and legitimacy are brought in to sustain local transitions. This highlights the role of power and agency that has previously been overlooked in transition research. The thesis thus not only contributes to an in-depth understanding about why and how sustainability transitions take place in certain places, it also reveals the general potential of cities that are lagging behind in industrialisation and urbanisation in pursuing sustainability transitions. Based on this, policy implications are suggested for latecomer cities to achieve sustainability transitions.


Yu, Z. (2017). Sustainability transitions and leapfrogging in latecomer cities : a case of the diffusion of solar thermal energy in China. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Oct 4, 2022
Publicly Available Date Feb 24, 2023
Keywords Geography
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Geography, Environment & Earth Sciences, The University of Hull
Award Date Jul 1, 2017


Thesis (5.6 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2017 Yu, Zhen. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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