Ma Jun: “There is a green momentum in China. We had no choice but to change our model”

Ma Jun: “There is a green momentum in China. We had no choice but to change our model”

"We had realised that we had no choice but to change our production model. China now burns half the world’s coal and it would likely have doubled the amount before peaking. Neither China nor the world could afford that," says Ma Jun from his office in Beijing.

(Adrián Foncillas)

Fifty-three-year-old Ma Jun, from Beijing, is the father of environmental activism in China. The degradation of the landscapes from his childhood drove him down unexplored pathways, and his travels gave rise to his seminal work, China’s Water Crisis, a book that inspired the environmental movement in his country. It was back in the days of ‘developmentalism at all costs’, when smoking factory stacks stood as symbols of progress. He studied at Yale University and came to understand that, in China, environmental offenders could not be stopped through legal channels. His unprecedented prescription was transparency in a country where opacity reigns supreme. His Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs collects and publishes up-to-date emissions data from millions of Chinese companies. Today, the same firms that used to close the door on him when he tried to convince them to invest in pollution controls are asking him for advice on how to reduce their emissions and be taken off the list of offenders.

In 2006, Ma Jun was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He is a global reference point and has received the Goldman Environmental Prize and other prestigious awards. Through the windows of his office we can see one of those blue skies that was a rare sight in Beijing a decade ago but is now quite typical. Beijing’s pledges – announced in September 2020 – to reach peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 attest to China’s paradigm shift.

Are the commitments for 2030 and 2060 modest or ambitious?

They came at a very critical time. The United States had pulled out of the Paris Agreement, there was a global pandemic, and there were concerns about economic recovery. Climate issues had been pushed into the background and then China made its pledges, in spite of all the drawbacks. It’s an ambitious challenge because China is still heavily engaged in the massive processes of industrialisation and urbanisation. The 30-year gap between peak emissions and carbon neutrality is much shorter [proportionally] than in Europe and the United States [considering how recent these industrialisation and urbanisation processes are in China]. We have less time and the volumes are exceedingly large, at around 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide [a year].

How can China reduce its emissions?

We want to change the market, using information and the law. By improving transparency, we receive 3.5 million pieces of data every day and track more than 9 million companies in China to conduct a dynamic corporate environmental assessment. Some of the largest global and domestic companies are using our data system to monitor their supply chains in China. Some of the largest financial institutions also consult it before granting loans or approving investments. These market solutions have great potential.

China denied climate change for years and accused its critics of trying to slow its development. When did its attitude change?

The government began changing its policies and management approach in the last decade. The most radical shift came in 2013, when it started monitoring and disclosing PM2.5 [the smallest and most dangerous particulate pollutants] concentration, following its biggest ever pollution crisis. It showed that it wanted to tackle the problem, to let people know that it was not haze but pollution and that it had to find solutions. And it wasn’t enough, of course, for people simply to know which days they needed to wear masks or keep their children indoors.

We started to monitor and publish the emissions of the biggest companies, almost in real time, every one or two hours. It was the first time in the world that it had been done and it helped us become more proactive. It became clear that although it was a relatively recent problem, it was already affecting people’s health. This paved the way for the signing of the first agreements between Xi Jinping [China’s president] and [his US counterpart Barack] Obama, and set the stage for the Paris Agreement. There is green momentum in China and that’s why it stayed in the agreement after [Obama’s successor Donald] Trump pulled out. And then came the commitments to cut emissions. We had realised that we had no choice but to change our production model. China now burns half the world’s coal and it would likely have doubled the amount before peaking. Neither China nor the world could afford that.

Did the change come from the government or from public pressure?

It is a classic case of public pressure shaping public policy. For a while, environmental damage was the main reason people took to the streets to protest. People became more concerned about their health and quality of life and no longer wanted a chemical plant or other polluting industry in their neighbourhoods. The factories complained that the big brands only bought the cheapest supplies and if they invested in water treatment plants and their competitors did not, they would lose their market share. But multinationals began to compare the suppliers’ polluting records and their violations. Gap, H&M, Uniqlo, Marks & Spencer, Walmart, etc., all insisted that they solve the problem if they wanted to stay in business.

Why did you decide to fight for the environment when no one else was doing it?

I grew up in this city [Beijing] and, as a child, I used to bathe in the river with my father. Some years later, the river was so degraded you couldn’t go near it. We had crops very close to the city centre, I liked to play with insects...I loved all that.

But what really made me start paying attention was working for the press, which gave me an opportunity to travel around China. I was surprised and shocked by the degradation of the water resources in many places. It was a very different landscape to that of the poems we would recite when we were little or those I had in my head. And I wrote about that in China’s Water Crisis, published in 1999. Many readers encouraged me to start an environmental organisation and to familiarise myself with the legal system. I got a fellowship at Yale University to research environmental policies in the West and in China and realised that the scale and complexity of the problem required public participation. But achieving that required access to information and it was very difficult to get it back then. That’s why I founded the organisation, at a time when information was very sensitive. In the first year, we only had a register of 2,000 violations. Then we expanded it to 120 cities and we have seen enormous progress in transparency over the last ten years. Technology has helped us, not only with collecting information but also with sharing it through social media.

What is the environmental situation in China now?

We have seen improvements. The improvement in air quality is very significant. There are more blue-sky days and, although less substantial, the improvement in water quality is also impressive. We still, however, have huge challenges such as groundwater and soil contamination, which are very serious and persistent. The coasts are heavily polluted and the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems is under great pressure. The number of fish has fallen by 90 per cent in the Yangtze River in the last 30 years. At the moment there is a ten-year fishing moratorium. And we have problems with litter, plastic, climate change. We’re faced with huge challenges but we are seeing some hope of meeting them thanks to data processing solutions. We don’t just expose the offenders, we study their problems and develop solutions.

Was it difficult in the beginning, doing this work in China where factories were seen as a symbol of development?

In the early years, the pressure was so strong at times that we were not sure whether we would be able to continue our work the next day. It was not only the factories we had put on the offenders list that strongly protested, but local governments also gave us a hard time. They accused us of undermining investment and holding back economic development. In ten years, there has been a huge change in mindset and the new Environmental Protection Law of 2015, which included a chapter on transparency and citizen participation, was a real breakthrough. There used to be fears that transparency might lead to social tensions. A ministerial official later pointed out to us that we had exposed a huge number of problems and that the sky had not fallen on our heads. The government has realised that our model is more efficient and less disruptive to the economy.

What is the difference between the environmental struggle in China and in the West?

In the West, legal action [against offenders] works, but the Chinese system discourages it. I had to find a pathway that suited our context and I opted for transparency, data, consensual solutions…[.] In the West, it was done before the technological revolution and it was a very expensive process that many developing countries could not afford. We were lucky that our beginnings coincided with the technological revolution in China. First it was the internet and websites, then smartphones and apps, which gave us a golden opportunity to greatly lower the cost and to popularise access to information. I am very happy that these solutions, based on experiences and lessons learned in China, are now also being taken up by neighbouring countries such as Vietnam or India.

The transparency recipe has triumphed in a very opaque country…

We were far behind the West and now in some respects we are ahead. Many are surprised when they see the volume of information in our various applications. We have 4,000 stations to measure air pollution, a map showing millions of companies and their environmental performance. We score and rank companies. There is a very broad social consensus that we have to clean up the environment if we want to protect the health of our people. There is real consensus, it’s a very special area. Environmental transparency is continuing to grow and I hope it can convince all the parties, including the government – that transparency and public participation can help our society.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin