How an app helped Beijing fix its pollution problem
On days of high smog in Beijing, residents open the Blue Map app on their smartphones to check the environmental polluters at fault and call them out on social media. It's one of the many ways that online opinion has brought a revolution to China's stance on prioritizing the environment over development.
"Before 2013, people had little access to air quality data," says Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) behind Blue Map. "Even on the worst smoggy days my son and millions of other children would have to go out to do outdoor exercises, really exposed to pollution hazards." That was the year that China began monitoring PM2.5, or fine particles, in response to influential bloggers speaking out in 2011 about the alarming air quality.
IPE developed Blue Map to compile the data and enable an effective interaction between the community, the government and factories. With over three million downloads, the app has brought power to the people. It helps make the climate crisis comprehensible and directs attention to the source. The app presents data on air and water pollution, across 31 provinces and 338 cities alongside the real-time emissions from some 13,000 companies -- thousands of which are in violation at any given moment.
It helps people understand the daily hazards they face and suggests what protective breathing gear to wear that day before leaving home. It also enables citizens to galvanize change by reporting on polluters.
Users can study the data to decide which companies to support or boycott, view weather forecasts and pull up data on the air and water pollution of any region in the country. In the first five months alone, 203 companies across China had responded to inquiries from environmental protection bureaus that were triggered by citizen complaints on the app; 74 of these took corrective action and two production lines of a steel factory were forced to close.
"So far, tens of thousands of micro-reports have been filed against violators on social media based on our app, and over 2,000 key emitters have openly addressed their violations for the first time," Ma Jun says.
Blue Map received Esri's 2018 Application of the Year Award. Now on version 5.5, and available in Chinese and English, the app allows users to directly report on "black and smelly rivers" to two government ministries with a guaranteed 100 percent response rate from the officials, including sharing the company's response on the cause of the violation and countermeasures taken. They can also follow up on how the government is dealing with the complaint.
China is the world's biggest polluter but the positive change that the country has brought about in the last few years is as unprecedented as its contribution to the climate crisis. China is geared to meet its carbon targets at the Paris Agreement on climate change well before 2030. It has cut back on coal consumption and invested in renewable energy.
Beijing's makeover has been nothing short of dramatic. In 2013, the first monthly average in Beijing on fine particulate matter pollution was 160 micrograms per cubic meter -- the country's annual average standard is 35 and WHO's is 10. This year, Beijing notches at 44.
As the city stands poised to drop off the list of the world's 200 most polluted cities, it passes the baton to its neighbors. India is home to 15 of the top 20, according to the World Air Quality Report 2018. India comes in at the third most polluted country, preceded by Pakistan and Bangladesh at No. 1.
November to January is peak smog season in Delhi thanks to Diwali fireworks that defy the Supreme Court's mandate restricting firecrackers and the annual crop burning in Punjab and Haryana despite the ban. Last November, Delhi's air quality was 10 times the safe limit; areas such as Anand Vihar and Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium hit a staggering 999.
One of the biggest changes in the last two decades is the rising public awareness, Ma Jun says, "and in response, the government first changed the rhetoric and the policy and then the economic development plan. In response to our Total Transparency Initiative, China became the first country in the world to require 18,000 major air and water emitters, including the largest coal power, steel, cement, chemical, paper and textile plants to make real-time disclosure based on online monitoring."
An intensive central government inspection has been held across the country since 2016. "We have a new law, dubbed the most stringent environmental protection law in our history. IPE consulted on this, and we were very happy to see that this is the first Chinese legislation to have a chapter titled 'Transparency and Public Participation.'"
Bringing transparency to the conversation on environmental pollution was the reason Ma Jun founded IPE to compile data from government monitoring. China declared a war on pollution in 2014, but he has been marshaling government data for over a decade to get the Chinese suppliers to the world's biggest companies -- including Apple -- to clean up their act.
After writing the acclaimed "China's Water Crisis" in 1999 based on his travels across the country, he set up IPE in 2006, with three people poring over physical government records to map out China's first online pollution database. In 2008, China passed regulations that allowed the public the right to access certain environmental data. In 2011, his collaborative investigative reports on heavy-metal pollution from companies like Apple set the ball rolling for multinational companies taking more responsibility for the environmental impact of their overseas production. In 2017, Blue Map was responsible for 196 suppliers to Apple facing action -- including being dropped entirely -- over breaches of environmental rules.
Today, IPE is a team of 40 who have reported 1.5 million environmental violations. IPE has motivated more than 70 of the largest local and multinational brands to engage with their Green Supply Chain program, where companies compare their list of suppliers with IPE's list of violators to identify the gaps and make improvements. Companies such as Nike, H&M and Sony keep up to date with IPE's maps and self-regulate. IPE also works with suppliers to find solutions to a cleaner environmental record.
"Over the past several months, every week, about 150 factories come to us to openly address their problems, and thousands of suppliers have signed on who are committed to respond to a problem in 10 days," Ma Jun says.
It is the combination of government incentives, corporate mitigation and public participation that can make the difference, Ma Jun says; "Unless we find a way to sustainably develop, our planet is not enough for us."
• This story is published as part of The Daily Herald's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.