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Ma Jun, director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, has been awarded a top environmental award for his efforts in setting up an online database of polluters and in urging enterprises to clean up their practices.
Six people — one each from Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America — shared the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize. Each winner of the award, established by the philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman in 1989 to honor grassroots environmentalists, receives $150,000.
In May 2006, Ma and his colleagues at the IPE began to gather data to create the first-ever maps of air and water pollution in China. The database now includes more than 90,000 threads of records, detailing breaches of environmental regulations committed by both Chinese and multinational companies. The public can now learn about the pollution levels and sources in their neighborhoods simply by clicking a mouse.
Ma's award highlights how improved environmental transparency can help China tackle the worsening pollution that often accompanies double-digit economic growth.
In 2007, the authorities issued Measures on Open Environmental Information, a regulation that forced environmental protection bureaus to disclose key information, such as regional environmental quality, lists that named polluters, responses to public complaints and other issues.
Businesses that failed to adhere to the environmental standards were also ordered to publish their pollution data in their local media, and to allow authorities to verify and register the data.
The regulation also gave the public the right to apply for disclosure of information by businesses and government at all levels.
Despite being lauded by environmentalists as a landmark for freedom of information in China, the regulation has never been fully implemented because of strong opposition from both businesses and government departments. Requests for information about pollution levels are often refused.
Last year, the US oil giant ConocoPhilips and China National Offshore Oil Corp failed to release information about oil spills that contaminated around 5,500 square kilometers of China's Bohai Bay until a month after the event, a move that sparked public anger.
Ma said that rising public awareness of environmental issues has already resulted in a number of promising changes. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has revised the country's air quality standards by including the measurement of PM2.5, tiny airborne particles that can cause severe lung disorders, in response to widespread public concern about the accuracy of official data on air quality.
"It is easy to complain about lax government supervision, but the ultimate impetus for cleaning up pollution lies in the power of the people," said Ma, who added that in some cases, local governments would rather protect the polluters than close them down because of the lucrative tax revenues. "It's impossible to tackle these problems without widespread public participation," he said.
Ma said that against the backdrop of globalization, the public can exert significant influence over erring companies by refusing to buy their products.
By demonstrating how the production of a trendy electronic gadget or a piece of smart clothing can lead to the contamination of rivers and endanger workers' health, the IPE and 40 other grassroots environmental organizations have declared war on big-brand polluters in the IT and textile industries.
In 2010, these NGOs published a report claiming that Apple Inc, along with a number of popular IT brands, had hired suppliers that violated China's environmental regulations and caused pollution. It took one and a half years for the NGOs to persuade Apple to sit down and discuss the issue, but now the US company has agreed to review the environmental performances of its suppliers in China.
"Apple finally broke its silence last year. I believe that the public pressure worked, especially after the media in China, the US and Europe undertook their own investigations," said Ma.
"Globalization has created a huge knowledge gap between consumers and producers. Most of the time, people don't realize that the products they buy can cause severe environmental damage. We need more information to bridge that gap," said Ma.