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There’s An App For That: The Role Of Data Transparency In The War On Pollution
Over the past two decades, rapid economic growth powered by cheap, conventional energy had fueled an incredible increase in Chinese living standards lifting millions out of poverty. Yet today, China is grappling with a new challenge: the environmental costs of that growth, most commonly experienced through dangerously high levels of air pollution that are shortening lives throughout the country.
Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun is helping to change that. In an event hosted by EPIC on November 15, Jun talked about his Blue Map app that allows the public to see, and report, where the worst polluters are located—an effort many in China credit for helping to usher in recent signs of progress, and other countries are looking to replicate.
“In our country, it’s not just the pollution problem that has exposed hundreds of millions to health hazards, but also…despite all the efforts made, resources spent to try to solve the problem, we still haven't seen the real turning point yet,” Jun said, describing why he entered into this project and is dedicated to it still today. “I think much of that has something to do with not just the root causes, not just the lack of technology or even money…but I think, the lack of motivation is a serious problem.”
Unlike in the United States, where there is a court system to help enforce the laws on the books, China doesn’t have the same judicial system, explained Jun, who was visiting Chicago as the 2017 Dr. Scholl Foundation Visiting Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. To compensate for the lapses in the judicial system, Jun turned to the people and began to arm them with information.
“Environmental challenges of such a magnitude and complexity cannot be resolved without extensive participation,” Jun said, noting he followed the work being done in the United States with the toxic release inventory while serving as a fellow at Yale. “In China, I think, we feel that not only do we need to learn from the transparency work here, but we need to probably push it to be more extreme, and even try to adopt some disruptive way of transparency because we don't have other alternatives.”
In 2013, Jun and his nonprofit Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs joined a group of NGOs in launching the Total Transparency Initiative, which called on the government to disclose real-time monitoring. To their surprise, they did so just four or five months later. This real-time data provided what Jun needed to develop the Blue Map app, which was later launched in June 2014.
Jun’s first wave of success came from big, fortune 500 companies that succumbed to the “name and shame” tactic. But, Jun knew that wouldn’t work for the smaller companies. For them, he turned to the supply chain and decided to target the buyers. He gave the example of one dye house that supplied major brands like the Gap, H&M, Mark and Spencer, and Walmart. One by one the major brands began pulling out because of the factory’s environmental practices—exposed by Jun and his team.
“One-by-one. The first one, maybe it's just 10 percent of the portion. And then, gradually, it's the whole business. If they don't change, then they lose their business,” Jun said. “So the owner actually told me…he's happy, because it means that the rule of the game has changed. And he has a chance to maybe be more competitive.”
The dye company has since brought about 12 million tons of wastewater into compliance.
“The business can be part of the problem, if they don't have those environmental policies in their sourcing practice. Then they just buy from the cheapest. They are actually taking advantage of the loopholes in countries like China, and other developing countries, of those weak enforcements to maximize their own gains,” Jun said. “They further drive the suppliers to race down to the bottom to win their contract. But when they change that, they could become part of the solution. They have massive power.”
In those early days, Jun described feeling pressure not just from the polluting companies, but from the government. He considered this pressure to be a good thing because it meant they had touched a nerve and found the right point of leverage.
“When you try to test-run something, you need some feedback to give you some confidence that this really touches upon some of the key issues,” said Jun, who was named as one of TIME Magazine’s World’s 100 Most Influential People and was honored with the prestigious Goldman Prize for his environmental work.
He credits his decision to use government monitoring data as safeguarding his mission.
“That proved to be helpful because data can be very sensitive in our country. And this freed us from all these questions about the capacity, the legitimacy of our organization,” Jun said. “So when they come to pressure us, they realize it's not us, but the government, that put them on the polluters list. It's not us. We just compile all this scattering data together… we serve as some sort of a clearinghouse.”
The Blue Map, which started by covering air pollution in just 74 cities, now covers every municipality in China and has expended to also cover water pollution. Since its launching, the app has led to thousands of reports being filed against polluting factories. Of them, more than 700 have addressed their violations.
“So, there's no new rules. There's no new laws. The app has created information. People take that information, and that leads to change?” asked EPIC’s Director Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics, who moderated the discussion.
Jun credits both public action, as well as a strengthening of enforcement in recent years, for leading to that change.
He cited one example, a steel plant, which emitted pollution that was sometimes 10 times above the standard. At first, the company did not care that they were listed as one of the top polluters. But, thanks to Weibo—China’s form of Twitter—the local environmental agency learned about the violations, saw the public outcry, and stepped in. Soon after, the company decided to shut down three of their inefficient furnaces—reducing sulfur emissions by 2,600 tons and particulates by 405 tons every year.
Jun says he doesn’t consider even the worst polluters to be evil or immoral. Instead, he views their polluting to be a market failure.
“The market continues to reward those who pollute. How can we win this war against pollution, if we continue to allow that?” Jun asked. “We need to recreate the accountability system. The government needs to be held accountable. And the brands, we should try to hold them accountable. And of course, the producers, the factories. But also, every one of us needs to be held accountable, as well.”