Public awareness about the pollution caused by businesses is proving to be a powerful tool for change in China. In a scenario where environmental activists find it difficult to force industrial polluters to change, court processes are long-drawn and complex, and incentives to cut environmental corners are high, public accountability can achieve quicker and more effective results.
Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun has been awarded a $1.25 million prize at the Skoll World Forum on Entrepreneurship for making a dramatic impact in China with a new green app for mobile phones. China’s government recognized the growing public anger over worsening industrial pollution levels, and acceded to Ma’s request to make real-time emissions data from factories public.
This was a clear indication of the political will of the government to solve China’s environmental problem. Using the data provided by the government, Ma’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) built a mobile phone app that enables users to see on an hourly basis whether a factory or a power plant close to their home is violating pollution standards.
Three million people in China have already downloaded the app. Violations automatically pop up as a red square on the map, which can be tagged on social media. The result of this public exposure of violations is that the businesses that were content to pay fines year after year are now facing a new form of pressure in terms of public resentment, which they can least afford.
Global companies such as Apple, Gap and Uniqlo, which source products from the offending factories, have also become aware of these violations due to IPE. According to Ma, within a month of contacting the first 29 companies, 28 agreed to act. There was initial resistance from the factories against change, but as a growing number of buyers said that their contracts were at risk, the resistance gave way to a willingness to implement change.
The public pressure brought about by the app has already led 120 international companies and 1,800 factories in China to take steps to reduce pollution. Furthermore, the app enables 380 cities in China to check their air quality, with additional air pollution data now included in the app.
Wang Bidou of the Shandong Environmental Protection Bureau said letting the public use real-time data to hold polluters to account was a wake-up call to all of the 15,000 companies on the pollution map.
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