How An App Is Stopping Pollution In China

When China made real-time data available on the pollution emitted by 40,000 factories and other sources, an environmentalist named Ma Jun turned it into an app. The app's users turned it into a force for change by sharing the data on Weibo—China's Twitter-like social network—and tagging the agencies responsible for enforcing environmental standards.
"​People in China are not satisfied knowing when they need to wear face masks. They want solutions," said Ma, founder of the non-profit ​Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and its Blue Map app, during a visit to Chicago this week. "What we find is that people don't just access the data, they share that on social media. That part is also powerful."
"​There's no new rules, there's no new laws," said Michael Greenstone, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago, one of Ma's hosts this week. "With the app you have created information. People take that information, and that leads to change?"
"Yes," said Ma, who described the function of his app in appearances at the University of Chicago Wednesday and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Thursday. He explained that on Beijing's smoggiest days, people consult the app to see where the pollution is coming from. Checking the Blue Map app in China is akin, he said, to checking the weather forecast in the U.S.
"When there are a lot of smoggy days, before people would get angry, but now they can use their energy for something else: find out who is polluting and tweet it."
Once the public began tagging government agencies in those "tweets" on Weibo, officials could no longer ignore the problem without appearing to neglect their duty, Ma said.
A former journalist for the South China Morning Post, Ma founded the IPE in 2006, after China began releasing some initial data on polluters. As its first project, IPE used the data to build a Blue Map website. The effort struggled for the first several years but flourished nearly a decade later following two developments: many Chinese began carrying mobile phones, and China began releasing real-time pollution data from the 40,000 largest polluters.
The Blue Map app brought those developments together.
Ma described a steel plant near Beijing that was routinely emitting sulfur dioxide and particulate matter above pollution standards—sometimes as much as 10 times above. In the early days of IPE, one of Ma's colleagues contacted the plant. "That is not something that we take as very important," he was told.
"So, obviously, they're not very good at PR," Ma said.
But nothing changed, he said, until citizens began using social media to pressure government regulators.
"​One day the regulator responded that they had checked and ordered company to solve the problem," Ma said. "Several months later, toward the end of that year, we got another response from the agency saying the company decided to shut down three production lines."
The shutdowns eliminated ​2,600 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions per year, Ma said, and 405 tons of particulate emissions per year.
It's difficult to say how much of China's fledgling environmental progress is attributable to IPE and the Blue Map app. Stories describing China's progress often cite Ma as their source. He won fame by writing China's Water Crisis, a book described as China's version of Silent Spring by Time Magazine in 2006, well before the Blue Map app, when it named Ma one of its 100 Most Influential People. On Thursday, Ma displayed a dramatic transformation of many of the sites documented on the App from red—the color of violations—to blue.
But the App has not been IPE's only tool. The group has also used the government data to pressure companies in China and abroad to clean up their supply chains.
When brands and manufacturers select suppliers solely on cost, they give an advantage to those who pollute, Ma said. When they make sure their suppliers are clean, they give the market advantage to those who don't pollute.
"When we engage with the companies, they have a good excuse: 'In China I don't know who are polluting, who are not. So I can only buy from the cheapest,'" Ma said. "But then, in the year 2007, '08, '09, I could tell them, 'We happen to have some data. We happen to have compiled this list of all the violators.'"
IPE's list of Chinese pollution violators has grown from 2,000 companies in 2006 to 500,000 today, Ma said. Companies that appear on the list are offered an opportunity to explain themselves. And they can be removed from the list if an independent audit shows they have cleaned up their act.
IPE is collaborating with the Natural Resources Defense Council to develop an international ranking of major brands based on the pollution records of their manufacturing and supply chains. Ma projected a list of companies they are calling upon to green their supply chains, beginning with Unilever, Dell, Adidas, Levis, Panasonic, Apple, Gap, Walmart….
China appears to be on the verge of launching a carbon market that will link the cost of carbon pollution to the price of products and activities that cause that pollution. But until that market has an effect, Ma will counter the competitive advantage polluters enjoy without new laws or to recourse to courts—just by outing them.
"The market continues to reward those who pollute," Ma said. "How can we win this war if we continue to allow that?"
Watch Ma's appearance at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs:

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