The Clean Revolution - Bringing back blue skies and clear water

November 20, 2018
December 2017

Ma Jun is a soft-spoken, widely influential environmentalist with a mission to shape a more sustainable China. As the Founding Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), Jun has dedicated his career to holding industry accountable for its environmental externalities. Through IPE, he created the China Pollution Map, a publicly available pollution database that actively monitors corporate environmental performance and facilitates public participation in environmental governance. Under Jun’s leadership, IPE has also played a leading role advising global corporations on improving environmental performance.

This left me no choice but to focus on these issues since they posed a serious health risk and threatened the very existence of the Chinese people and economy. So, I had to act.

What first brought your attention to China’s environmental issues?

During my research trips as an investigative journalist almost 20 years ago, I observed an unprecedented level of pollution in Shanxi province. The extent of the pollution I witnessed included soil erosion, discolored rivers, diminishing water flow, and toxic fumes from factories which made it hard to breathe. This left me no choice but to focus on these issues since they posed a serious health risk and threatened the very existence of the Chinese people and economy. So, I had to act.

As one of the most recognized environmental voices, you have been successful in working with multinational corporations (MNCs), as well as their local manufacturing partners in China to foster positive environmental change. What has your experience been working with MNCs?

Realizing that public participation was the missing link in China’s environmental governance processes, IPE began collecting and analyzing public government data on industrial pollution, and launched the China Pollution Map Database in 2006. 10 years ago, we launched Green Choice, a program that encourages consumers to use their buying power and public opinion to influence corporations in implementing more sustainable sourcing policies and manufacturing methods. While we have made significant progress, many manufacturers claim they cannot comply with already existing environmental standards, since clients only focus on price. Consistent enforcement of the policies remains weak, and since the cost of violation is lower than the cost of compliance, those in the market who cut corners are effectively rewarded. In the world economy, the influx of, and continuous demands on the large multinationals to provide cheap products and services further reinforced this behavior and was used to add an incentive to cut corners. Forced to lower costs to win contracts, local manufacturers were incentivized to violate their environmental laws. Because of the inefficiencies and challenges of the jurisdictional system, we decided to use the power of data and thus make information public, to increase transparency and to educate. The public and the consumers need to be informed, effectively empowering them to pressure the MNCs and use their knowledge as leverage to make their supply chain more green. Throughout the years, we have been able to engage with big companies with our data, scientific research and economic reasoning to improve their business practices. Fortunately, we managed to influence an increasing number of companies to review their sourcing methods, including 30 MNCs implementing more sustainable business practices. Some of the largest brands, such as Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola, Siemens, and even Wal-Mart have started to review their supply chain, and begun to implement changes. The companies seek to deploy green power purchasing methods (removing coal-based suppliers from their production chain), while at the same time experiencing the quality of the products improving through their decision to go greener.

The public and the consumers need to be informed, effectively empowering them to pressure the MNCs and use their knowledge as leverage to make their supply chain more green.

It seems China is finally taking serious measures to enhance environmental quality standards. Do you see this as a sustained transition towards environmentally sound development?

China’s ability to grow is directly linked to more sustainable business practices. We have not yet seen the environmental quality improve. There is clearly an environmental tipping point, and China has come to realize that this is not sustainable. Whereas in the past we embraced growth at all costs, today future economic growth no longer trumps all other interests. The impact of the past and its effect on public health has put the use of sustainable resources in peril, because social stability has been threatened. China is the world’s largest polluter, which affects its relations globally. The negative implications associated with this reputation are being recognized, and the government admits that the past (and current) business practices are a real threat to systemic economic growth. These sentiments are confirmed by recent surveys and observations that clearly indicate the risk of environmental issues and hazards as the top concerns of the people. Regularly occurring toxic smog levels also triggered a public debate demanding actions which address these issues, since the people recognized the importance of clean air and water. Regardless of social and economic status, pollution has a significant impact on the health of the people and these are the issues people care about the most. While the environmental problems remain massive, we are witnessing a remarkable transition and renewed focus on environmental governance, spurring emission reduction. Most recent data points suggest emissions are no longer increasing but leveling off. This may suggest that we are at a tipping point.

The ‘Blue Sky Map App’, officially launched by the IPE, enables the public to monitor air and water quality and local sources of pollution, and scrutinize emissions from companies. Raising public awareness is critical. Is the app also linked to actual solutions?

The app led to some solutions and change. The reason we developed the app in 2013 was to provide access to accurate real-time data, to enable people to get involved. Integrating the social media function is critical so people can access and engage in real time. For example, in 2006 there were 2,000 violations recorded. Today we have over 500,000 violations recorded and the level of transparency is increasing. While we have yet to see widespread environmental improvements, the ability to enforce the laws will play an important role in companies motivated by a green transformation, and they are looking for solutions while facing the challenge of increasing transparency. Pressure from public opinion led to the closure of one of the largest steel manufacturers, which was gravely violating environmental laws. This is an example of local involvement leading to these positive results. The app facilitated transparency and change, and was used as a tool for people to engage. While enforcement is necessary, the participation of the public plus voluntary involvement of the companies is key to building a more sustainable future. Responsibility must be shared by all corporate citizens and the investment community. Thus, empowerment is critical to active participation. The power of mobile internet access, combined with social media, gives us a chance to reach all citizens. Rather surprising to us was the fact that the government agreed to disclose emissions data from major cities across all Chinese provinces, signaling their commitment to monitor and address these issues.

What is your vision and hope for the future?

I hope our efforts will help clean up and restore the water, coastal sea, the air, and our soil, as China is going through this massive industrialization and urbanization. While it seems ironic, China has been put in the driver’s seat on the climate change issue. The U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, leaving China no choice. We also see a lot of interest from neighboring countries since economies are becoming increasingly global, yet leaving very real local issues which need to be addressed. One could even argue that China will drive the transition to a more sustainable future. We are helping to map this out.

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