by Mark Buntaine, Michael Greenstone, Guojun He, Mengdi Liu, Shaoda Wang, Bing Zhang
- China, along with other countries around the world, has given citizens official private channels to report violations, therefore allowing them to put more pressure on local regulators to improve government accountability. At the same time, the public has begun to leverage social media platforms to call for actions against polluters.
- The researchers conducted an experiment across all of China to investigate if citizen pressure can improve environmental enforcement and reduce pollution. The experiment included nearly 25,000 major polluters that account for more than 75 percent of China’s industrial emissions. At baseline, about a third of these firms violated existing pollution standards.
- The researchers recruited citizen volunteers to send messages appealing for action to a randomly chosen subset of firms after a standard violation. It was also randomly determined whether the message was sent privately (i.e. calling a government hotline or sending a private message to a government official or firm) or publicly through the popular Twitter-like Chinese social media site Weibo.
- Public appeals to the regulator through social media reduced violations by more than 60 percent, and decreased air and water pollution emissions by 12.2 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively. Private appeals also improved environmental performance but by smaller magnitudes.
- When the visibility of social media appeals was increased by adding “likes” and “shares” to the Weibo post, the regulator was 40 percent more likely to reply and 65 percent more likely to conduct an onsite investigation—signaling that public exposure can unlock regulatory action and enforcement.
- Citizen appeals do not crowd out other regulatory efforts. The researchers randomized the proportion of firms that were subject to citizen appeals in each prefecture and tracked how non-appealed firms’ environmental performance was affected when a larger share of its peers received appeals. They found that increasing the amount of citizen appeals in a local region does not lead to higher violation rates or emissions from non-appealed firms.
- The study found that engaging citizens, especially through public tools like social media, can significantly reduce air and water pollution. It additionally demonstrates that the Chinese government is accountable to its citizens’ demands for a cleaner environment, despite the absence of Western style voting booth disciplining. More broadly, it provides the first experimental evidence on bottom up participation in environmental governance that characterize prominent policies in the US, Canada, India, Indonesia, and other parts of the world, besides China.
Areas of Focus: Environment
, Air Pollution
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