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The Green Life: Ma Jun Maps the Environmental Crisis in China

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April 26, 2012

Ma Jun Maps the Environmental Crisis in China

2012Asia_13Ma Jun is one of China's leading environmental activists and the director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in Beijing. He was awarded the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize for exposing water and air pollution violations throughout China, using Internet-accessible maps. He has also successfully challenged large companies like Apple and Wal-Mart to restructure their global supply chains.

SIERRA: I read that in Beijing, there is only smog when residents are allowed to use their heaters.

Ma Jun: It's actually called the "heating season." But then the smog becomes even worse, yes.

How long have you lived there?

I was born in the coastal city, Qingdao, but I grew up in Beijing, actually. That's where I started doing my environmental work. I started with my first job in the media, which afforded me to travel in different parts of China. And I was struck by some of the environmental degradation, especially of our water resources. There were shortages, pollution, and river eco-systems were being destroyed. I put what I saw into this book [China's Water Crisis, in 1999] and that got me started in what I'm doing now.

How did you start working with the online water and air pollution maps?

I'd been trying to look for solutions to our environmental challenge and came to the conclusion that the barrier to our environmental protection is not the lack of technology, or even money — it's the lack of motivation. Motivation should come from law enforcement or court litigation, but in China, it's still very difficult. I decided we needed public participation, but the public needed to be informed before getting involved. With that in mind, I decided to create these databases to provide easy access.


Were you afraid of putting that information online?

Yes, well, data is still considered to be quite sensitive in my country. We needed to handle that quite consciously, so we made a compromise: at first, we compiled mostly government-sourced information. See, China in recent years has made some progress in environmental transparency. The government started disclosing some of its monitoring data, but it's still bits and bits here and there. It's very difficult for people to access this stuff. So what we were doing, through relentless data gathering, was putting it all together on a searchable platform, so everyone could utilize the data. Of course, the government would to check what's going on, but once they realized that our data is based on their own monitoring, it became somewhat easier for them to accept.

What spurred this new transparency from the Chinese government?

There all these different reasons. But one is that, in 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). Around that time, quite a few laws and regulations were changed to make the country more in line with international practices, including some requirements for transparency and participation. More recently, in 2008, China published more regulations.

Because of the Olympics?

Well, it was around that time. On the environmental side, they created a by-law called the Environmental Information Disclosure Measure. Of course, all these things are legal requirements, but their implementation and enforcement remain quite weak. That's what we promote. We're now working with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on an index called the Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI). We assess 113 different cities in China. This is the third year of rankings; out of 100, the average score was 40. But there has been some progress. If you put it into a historic perspective, it's sort of a starting point.

When people access this information, polluters start coming to us to try to fix their problems. Talking about progress made, in 2006, when we launched our pollution map, we had 2,500 violations recorded. Today, that number has topped 9,700. Some of the world's largest companies use our data to track the performance of their suppliers. So far, Wal Mart, Nike, Coca Cola, Levi's, some of the big European, Japanese and local Chinese brands have all become regular users. Some 600 polluters come to us to take corrective actions; over 100 have gone through a third-party audit and have gotten their records removed.

Do you believe the Internet is helping to spread your message?

Yeah, I think the Internet has played a very essential role in our transparency work. I read about how costly it was in America [for early environmentalists] in the 1970s — you need to mail all this information. But with the Internet, transaction costs have been knocked off substantially. It's much more efficient, and there's more organization. 

As a start-up in 2006, we could do the national pollution database and have all these web users access it all over China. We now have more web users than any other country in the world — more than the entire U.S. population. And the number is growing fast. We're even moving towards mobile Internet, which creates more possibilities for even bigger applications.  We use the Chinese version of Twitter, which has hundreds of millions of users —

Weibo? [WAY-bo] What kind of stuff do you Tweet about? GreenRibbon

[Laughs] WEE-bo. And we call it "posting." But it's basically Tweeting. We "tweet" all kinds of environmental issues and try to highlight some of our findings. Last year, when we published a report about Apple, within two weeks, the video we created (called "The Other Side of Apple") was downloaded 140,000 times. People even started posting their own messages. They would be holding their cell phones, tied with green ribbon, saying, "Green my cell phone." It's quite amazing — it's not just a way to spread information, but a forum for people to express their opinions.

Do you think the future of the environmental movement in China might be online?

I think the online components will grow, and be a great help. But the real on-the-ground investigation, mobilization, and grassroots movements will remain to be the core essential part of it. You need the local people to guide their local resources. Who generates all this good content? We now have a coalition of 41 NGOs, called Green Choice Alliance, and we work together on these issues. But we are just the platform that will help bring the message to a larger audience.

Much of what people call our "success" — driving all these hundreds of polluters to change — much of that we need to attribute to the care and concern expressed by consumers. They say, "I'm the user, and I love your product, but I cannot accept that you allow your suppliers to damage the environment." And that's a great help. If we can motivate American brands towards green sourcing policies, that can help the pollution control efforts in China.

Bonus: Listen to interviews with Goldman Environmental Prize winners on Sierra Club Radio.

--Images courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs; aggregated photos from Weibo, courtesy of Probe International

JRC Justin Cohn is a blogger for the Sierra Club. He is also a student at the University of California, Berkeley, an aspiring fiction writer, musician, and — occasionally — the guy who gets the mail. Twitter: @justinrcohn

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