Pay Attention to Public Policy, Guide Social Choices Dialogue with Ma Jun, chief of IPE
Source: www. Environment-china.org
Reported by: Chen Jinling
Recently, our reporter interviewed Ma Jun, chief of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), reviewing the history of the Institute’s progress and looking to the future development trajectories of environmental NGOs.
Environmental information disclosure is a prerequisite for public participation
Reporter: For years, you’ve been working on public participation at different levels. Although there are many ways to encourage public participation, each person finds his own strategy. You’ve started to focus on water pollution using public participation. What made you choose this path?
I started to pay attention to water issues in the mid-1990s, considering a number of different ways to solve them. There are a variety of possible solutions, including implementing technological schemes and using economic leverage after marketization to ameliorate certain conflicts. Finally, I reached the conclusion that without public participation, it is difficult to solve water pollution, water resources, and water protection issues.
China’s water pollution issue is not just a technical problem. Pollution control technologies were developed as early as the 1970s, and these technologies are now very mature. The water pollution problem is also not just a lack of capital, either. There are a lot of institutional problems to overcome.
I find that in Western countries, extensive public participation has played a significant role in environmental protection. For example, in the United States, by the end of 1960s, water pollution had become a very serious problem. The public expressed their wishes through a number of actions such as starting “Earth Day.” Eventually, Congress heard them, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, a specialized department just for environmental problems. Meanwhile, courts oversaw the implementation of relevant laws and regulations. Consequently, because the public continued to advocate for more regulations, a complete set of institutions were created and improved, and the problem was resolved. In fact, other countries also had similar experiences.
However, in our country, some local governments blindly pursue GDP growth and protect the so-called key enterprises, making environmental protection difficult to achieve. These complex issues will not be easily solved by raising the level of sewage treatment, increasing technology or by increasing spending.
It is impossible to overcome so many profit-related disputes without public participation. The public is the real victim of pollution and ecological destruction, and an important ally of the environmental protection department. Only with public involvement can environmental decision-making and environmental management be effective, supporting the work of environmental protection departments at all levels.
After studying the various methods of public participation in western countries, I’ve found that a particularly effective approach is the disclosure of environmental information, using information disclosure as a way to promote public participation in environmental protection.
China is rapidly entering the information age, significantly decreasing the cost of environmental information disclosure. Since 2003, China has laid a foundation of laws and policies regarding public participation. The “Environmental Impact Assessment Law” clearly grants the public the right to participate in policy decision-making. Later, the State Council publicized a series of other regulations and policies including the implementation of administration by law. Based on these laws and regulations, we can now promote this work lawfully and rationally.
The China Water Pollution Map as an entry point
Reporter: In practice, you decided to begin with the “China Water Pollution Map.” What were you thinking then?
Ma Jun: After returning to China, I had two goals in mind. On the one hand, I wanted to sort out research I had done abroad, and on the other hand, I wanted to promote information disclosure through a dedicated platform.
I believe environmental information disclosure is an important and practical means of public participation. Since the establishment of IPE, I have wanted to combine information disclosure with water issues. And so I decided to set up a water pollution database.
If the public isn’t aware of what happens to drinking water, the status of the surrounding water environment, or how enterprises illegally discharge sewage, where do they have the opportunity to participate? To help the public understand directly, digital maps are needed, so I formed the “China Water Pollution Map" and “China Air Pollution Map” databases.
Reporter: How effective have they worked over the past few years? Were they successful?
Ma Jun: In the early days, the water pollution map included 2,500 records. Today, it has 42,600 records and more than 15,000 records of air pollution. Many people think that this achievement was already difficult, but the thought that the water pollution problem has still not been resolved but rather remains severe makes me believe it is not enough. Having seen so much data and problems, we feel more worried and responsible for these problems.
Supply Chain Management Project changes procurement processes and businesses
Reporter: As an extension of this responsibility, in 2008 you started a green supply chain management system project. What is this project?
Ma Jun: On March 21, 2007, we started the Green Choice initiative. The objective was two-fold: consumer action, and supply chain management. First, we advised consumers to carefully choose their products, thus using their purchasing power to influence corporate behavior. Then, we asked large retailers and large-scale enterprises to take the initiative to strengthen the environmental management of their supply chain. The next year we turned this into a supply chain management project. The public can see our business monitoring records online as well as the record of the government’s punishments for excessive violations.
In recent years, economic globalization has brought huge environmental damage to China. Large foreign enterprises, coming to China to purchase goods, are concerned only with prices and product quality. A consequence of this is that some low-cost suppliers may choose to sacrifice the environment in order to get more orders. This mentality of getting orders at whatever cost to the environment could end up reducing China’s economic standards. Now, since we have a database of records, the buyers won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the pollution that is occurring. If the buyers choose to ignore these records, then the blame is now on the buyer.
In fact, some responsible large companies, such as the U.S. General Electric Company (G E), Nike, Hong Kong’s textile enterprise Esquel, and Wal-Mart use this data for management purposes.
Two years ago, Wal-Mart found us, hoping to use this information to promote their management style. On October 22, 2008, in Beijing, Wal-Mart announced environmental standards that all of their suppliers have to meet. They retrieved the records of suppliers once a month, thus encouraging a large number of enterprises to help solve pollution problems.
Now, companies from the United States, and gradually Europe’s Unilever and Adidas, as well as some large companies from Japan, have begun to join the program. Over time, driven by consumer goods companies, more than 120 vendors now communicate with us on policy violation and rectification.
Green consumption is a green choice
Reporter: This year, IPE and 30 other environmental NGOs engaged in a “Chinese New Year black list”. This list, using data published by the government, names enterprises known to violate pollution laws, issuing a warning “card” to them, and calls for consumers to not buy their goods. What’s the current situation?
Ma Jun: Of the 20 brands that were named on the first black list released this year, eight enterprises provided feedback, and five of those provided detailed information. Two companies have already proposed and started their plans to reduce their pollution, so we have removed them from the blacklist.
Up to now, only a small number of consumers are taking action, but even a small number is able to considerably impact an enterprise.
I think that China’s environmental problems cannot be solved by any one department, institution, or individual. Broad participation including a number of NGOs is essential. For example, this time we united with more than 30 environmental NGOs, including the Friends of Nature and Darwin Environment Research Institute. We can use this as an example of a good case in order to help more consumers consciously make green choices.
Chinese environmental NGO organizations are a force that cannot be overlooked
Reporter: Let’s talk about a little “virtual” point. Although Chinese environmental NGOs are still weak in power, they are a force that cannot be overlooked. Please tell us about your views on them.
Ma Jun: In the field of environmental protection, the development of environmental NGOs has three points. First, our country faces serious environmental challenges; second, environmental protection will affect everyone; third, in practice, these civil institutions choose mild operation modes. But just a few institutions are not enough; the whole public needs to be mobilized to help protect the environment.
I would like to discuss the development and evolution of Chinese environmental NGOs. We started from the viewpoint of environmental education. We asked that everyone as an individual practice green living, such as conserving water and electricity, planting trees, bird watching, and collecting litter. Carrying out these activities has greatly popularized the concept of environmental protection. In this sense, environmental NGOs have made great contributions in the area of public environmental awareness. The first established environmental NGOs started working on this level.
In 2003, public participation changed. That year, the government issued an “Environmental Impact Assessment Law,” which provided the public with the legitimate right to be involved in public environmental policy decision-making. Take the Nu River dam for example: Green Earth Volunteers and some other NGOs were involved in this environmental protection campaign. Such behavior is in fact a shift from individual attention to major environmental policy planning. Involving the public in decision-making is a big change.
In the past two years, new changes have also taken place. Some environmental NGOs began to shift their focus to the environmental performance of businesses. In other words, environmental NGOs began to act as a corporate watchdog, forming a link between environmental NGOs and enterprises.
Such a relationship is different from what has occurred in past years. Environmental NGOs are directly involved in the production and procurement process, concerned with the performance of production and operation, and the impact of these activities on the surrounding community. When this practice proves to be effective in protecting the environment, more environmental NGOs will head in that direction.
Translator: Xiyun Zhong
Proofreader: Leah House, Jillian Taylor, Chad Futrell, Ryan Yu