China’s Ma Jun on the Fight To Clean Up Beijing’s Dirty Air

Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun played an important role in a recent successful effort to force the government to more strictly monitor air pollution in Beijing. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about the daunting challenges of China’s anti-pollution battle and how social media is helping lead the fight to improve the nation’s air.

On a rare Beijing blue-sky day in late March, Ma Jun, one of China’s leading environmentalists, sat down to discuss a small but important victory: On January 6, China’s government announced that it would begin releasing previously unavailable daily readings of fine particulate pollution — called “PM 2.5” because the particles are less than 2.5 microns in diameter — in Beijing.

Ma Jun
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Ma Jun
Although small in size, such pollution is especially detrimental to human health because the particles are minute enough to burrow into the lungs and bloodstream. Air pollution is hardly a new issue in China’s capital — remember the near-daily news broadcasts about smoggy skies in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics — but in the past year, public concern over urban air pollution in China has clearly reached a new level.

Ma Jun — the former journalist, author, and founder of the leading Beijing-based nonprofit Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs — thinks the timing of the growing alarm is no coincidence. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina Larson, he said that one reason air pollution has recently become such a pressing public issue is because of the concurrent rise of social-media platforms in China — especially the microblogging sites Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo. While public demonstrations organized by citizens are in most cases illegal in China, microblogging sites have provided a new kind of public forum — a way to share information, quickly. An avid Weibo user himself, Ma Jun explains how new media has been a positive force for environmental-data transparency in China and why stricter government air pollution monitoring is a significant step in the long struggle to clean up up China’s air.

Yale Environment 360: Why is it so hard to clean up Beijing’s smoggy skies?

Ma Jun: With many environmental concerns, neither the problem nor the solution comes overnight. China’s urban air pollution comes as a result of long-term inappropriate human activities — we should not underestimate the challenge. Air pollution has grown alongside China’s massive industrialization and urbanization, and that’s still underway on an enormous scale. Beijing is still growing: the population is expanding, the cars on the roads are increasing, and all these new buildings are still going up. Meanwhile, Beijing is surrounded by other fast-growing urban and industrial areas. Therefore, it’s quite a challenge to clean up Beijing’s air. We know the volume of discharge is way beyond the environmental carrying capacity. We know we have to reduce emissions, but it’s not easy.

e360: What can you tell us about the sources of Beijing’s air pollution?

Ma Jun: In January, a vice mayor of Beijing shared some figures for sources of Beijing air pollution. Of course, it is hard to independently verify these figures. But according to the local official, at least 22 percent is from car
What’s needed is an open and transparent road map to achieve emissions reductions step by step.”
emissions, 16.7 percent from coal combustion, 16 percent from building and road construction dust and particles, 6.3 percent from industrial emissions, 4.5 from the burning of corn and wheat stocks and other activities in nearby rural areas. And 24.5 percent of Beijing smog comes from surrounding urban and industrial areas, including Tianjin and Hebei. That’s what the vice mayor says, anyway.

I believe what’s needed is an open and transparent road map to achieve emissions reductions step by step — targeting all of these sources. One of the suggestions that Chinese environmentalists make is that the government should disclose all the data and analysis it collects on air pollution, so that the public can be more involved in this process.

e360: London, Los Angeles, and many other Western cities were once terribly smoggy — but later made strides cleaning up their skies. Are there lessons applicable to China?

Ma Jun: Many Western cities have gone through a very polluted stage. London used to suffer very badly from “London fog,” which was really smog. At first, people didn’t know the major source of air pollution was burning coal; then they realized it was a big problem, and London gradually phased out coal-fired power plants within city limits. That greatly reduced the discharge of sulfur dioxide, starting in the 1950s. Los Angeles faced a different type of air pollution — it was less about coal and more about car emissions. The way that L.A. addressed air-quality problems was by increasing mileage standards and fuel quality [in California], and also by improving the emissions-control devices installed on cars.

Air pollution in China is such a big challenge because it’s a combination of these two sources — coal combustion and cars. The newer coal-fired power
“People began to feel that their quality of life was impacted, and they worried about the health of their children.”
plants do have stricter emissions standards, but meanwhile the number of cars is still rising quickly in Beijing and other cities. Beijing’s current plan does call for phasing out coal combustion within the Fifth Ring Road [an expressway encircling the city] and also retiring older, more polluting cars soon. But the surrounding areas outside of Beijing still have considerably less stringent standards on coal and car emissions, so this is a challenge.

e360: Can you explain what happened in recent months, when the Chinese government announced that Beijing would release data on fine particulate pollution?

Ma Jun: China has been building up its legislative framework on air pollution-control over several years. One of the major remaining gaps was about fine particles, or “PM 2.5,” which the law hadn’t required to be monitored or disclosed. The government was quite reluctant to do that, until recently.

Over he past two or three years, China’s central government had been contemplating revising its ambient air-quality standards. At the beginning of 2011, a first draft of new standards was published. That draft did not include PM 2.5 as a pollutant that must be monitored and disclosed, and this aroused a lot of public concern. The reason the government gave [for the omission] was that PM 10 had yet to be effectively addressed, so it was too early to include monitoring PM 2.5.

But we can assume there are also other reasons. We know that local officials worry about losing face. They worry that transparent data about air quality will tarnish the image of many Chinese cities, and this could have negative implications for attracting investment, which in turn could affect GDP growth — their number-one concern. Now local officials may say that air quality is improving, but if pollution data was fully monitored and disclosed, we would see that air quality would still be deemed unhealthy for many days in most cities.

Finally, it’s the public that voiced great opposition to this kind of opposition [by local governments to transparency]. Last year, Beijing suffered from several long spells of hazy days — people began to feel that their quality-of-life and work productivity were impacted, and they worried about the health of their children. Also, so many flights got canceled because of the smog. You
“Even with an ambitious plan, Beijing will probably not be able to meet air-quality standards for 18 or 20 years.”
could not ignore the problem.

Today people have access to different sources of information and better means to spread it quickly. We can see how fast the public was able to educate themselves about air pollution. Within several months, “PM 2.5” went from sounding like strange jargon to becoming a household phrase. Through Weibo, people spread information about air pollution, like a chain reaction. Eventually, I think the government decided to respond to this public uproar — it did not want to let anger simply grow.

At the end of 2011, a second draft of China’s national ambient air standards legislation was released, and this time the monitoring of PM 2.5 was included. The government also decided to adopt more stringent standards. It was the first time China decided to match the World Health Organization’s minimum standards [for acceptable levels of particulates].

e360: At the outset, how will China’s cities measure up?

Ma Jun: We expect that up to two-thirds of China’s major cities will not be able to meet air-quality standards, and some will not for a very long time. Even with an ambitious action plan, Beijing will probably not be able to meet air-quality standards for 18 or 20 years. [Sighs.] I will be more than 60 years old then. But I still think it’s highly positive that the standards were adopted. To me, it just demonstrates that the public voice was able to help overcome powerful local opposition to increasing environmental transparency. That, at least, is hopeful.

e360: Can you talk more about the role that Weibo, and perhaps other social media, played in advancing the issue of air-pollution?


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Ma Jun: I believe Weibo played a decisive role in promoting a better policy on PM 2.5. It was over Weibo that some celebrities in China with millions of followers started to post monitoring data [on Beijing air quality] from the U.S. embassy. They also posted some information about health impacts. And then their followers started reposting the data. Weibo has become an important convening and discussion forum, and public opinion is getting much more visible in China.

e360: Do you have a Weibo account?

Ma Jun: Yes. It’s I have about 16,000 followers. And they are from all across China, and also some outside China.

e360: A few years ago, I remember you said you jogged outside. Do you still?

Ma Jun: No. Now I know much more information. I still run, but inside on a treadmill now.