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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Decentralization and leakage

Variable relationship:

Local governance is widely believed to have advantages over central governance in the management of environmental commons. However, it is commonly argued that a comparative weakness of local governance (Centralization) is its inability to resolve large-scale environmental problems, most prominently climate change (Sovacool and Brown 2009). Much of this difficulty comes from the inability to fully internalize the negative externalities that local governmental units can inflict on each other across space. As local governance processes work on internalizing their own externalities, they can do so by exacerbating the same problems outside of their jurisdiction, through a process known as leakage (Leakage). Ultimately, this process can be characterized as a scale mismatch problem (Scale Match), where the scale of the environmental resource or issues exceeds the scale of the local jurisdiction that is trying to address it.

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Local Government, Group of Local Governments


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
CentralizationUnderlying independent variableThe theory starts with a somewhat to highly decentralized governance system.Highly decentralized
Scale matchProximate independent variableAs a result of the governance system being highly decentralized, there is a mismatch between its (fairly local) decision-making scale and the scale of the environmental commons involved.No
Social-ecological fitProximate independent variableInstitutions that uncover the spatial scale and heterogeneity and key links of ecosystems are more likely to have expected effects on resource conditions. As a result of the governance system being highly decentralized there is a misfit between social and ecological conditions.Low
LeakageIntermediate outcomeDue to the scale mismatch between the governance system and commons involved, leakage can occur, producing externalities outside of the jurisdictional decision-making arrangements.Yes, leakage of costs
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeLeakage leads to declines in the commons outside of the jurisdiction of one or more local governance systems.Worsened

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Political decentralization and fitcontradictory
Decentralization and elite capturerelated
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)contradictory
Decentralization and local capacityrelated
Centralized conservationrelated
Social-ecological fit theorycontains

Related Studies


Sovacool, B. K., and M. A. Brown. 2009. Scaling the policy response to climate change. Policy and Society 27:317–328. Elsevier.