The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) was founded in 2006 with a mission to clean up severe air and water pollution in China and to safeguard the planet. It developed China’s first public environmental database, as well as the Blue Map, a mobile app that visualizes air, water, soil, and ocean quality data and tracks the performance of hundreds of thousands of major emitters. The information has proven to be a potent lever for improving environmental conditions and environmental governance across China. To help speed up climate actions domestically and abroad, in 2020 IPE launched the Blue Map for Zero Carbon and began to collaborate with partners to develop the regional Carbon Peak and Neutrality Index and the Corporate Climate Action Index.
In an interview moderated by David Sandalow on April 10, 2023, IPE founder Ma Jun discusses the latest developments in its work.
DAVID SANDALOW: Hi, my name is David Sandalow and I am at Columbia University at the Center on Global Energy Policy and a member of the board of directors here at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. And I am so thrilled to be here with Ma Jun, who is the founder and president of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, and a global leader on clean energy.
Ma Jun’s work has been visionary and remarkable in helping improve air quality in China, water quality in China, soil quality in China. And he’s used transparency, transparency as a key tool for improving environmental quality. Ma Jun is here in New York with us. Ma Jun, welcome.
MA JUN: Thank you, David.
SANDALOW: Let me just start to ask about the latest developments in your work. It’s so great to see you after three years, more years of not being together, what’s happening in Beijing, what’s happening in China with your work?
MA: Yeah. Now, finally, I think we’re in the post-COVID era and everything’s trying to be back to normal. And so we again have the orders from government agencies to business to the citizens, trying to focus more on the recovery side and of course, to us, you know, that kept us pretty busy because we need to make sure that through this massive economic recovery program, we can still manage to keep the momentum to improve our air and water quality.
And in the meantime, try to speed up the climate mitigation program. It was not easy but the new challenge, you know, facing the new challenge, we over the past 17 years try to use our Google Map database as a tool to engage with stakeholders and to mobilize more extensive participation and tap into the power of the market.
And we’re very happy.
SANDALOW: Sorry to break in. But just tell us what is the Blue Map app for those who aren’t familiar with it. It’s such a powerful tool.
MA: Sure. When we got started, more than 17 years ago, we were facing a massive pollution challenge, from the air to the water to the coastal sea soil. And I trust that we need extensive participation. And the precondition for that is access to information. So, with that in mind, we started to build the prototype of the so-called Blue Map database to compile the environmental quality data, the discharge data, and also the performance records of all these corporations.
Over the past more than ten years of time, we managed to work together with our partners to motivate [and] to have more transparency. And we’re happy to seize on the expansion of transparency. Today we’re able to track the performance of some millions of corporations and color code them based on their performance and develop them on the digital map and tapping into the development of mobile Internet.
We launched the Blue Map app and so, brought that on the cellphone so people can easily not just access the information but visualize and better understand this information and then use that as a platform to report their polluted rivers and to report those corporations who violate the standards. And that is the Blue Map.
SANDALOW: And what have you found from this? Are you seeing environmental quality improving, going backwards? What are the trends that you’re seeing?
MA: Yeah, the trend is moving toward a kind of more improvement. You know, when we got started [in] 2006, that was [in] hindsight almost like a kind of a real low point of our water quality. You know, 28% of the monitored sections of our rivers and lakes reported worse than category five water quality. Basically, it’s good for no use.
MA: The worst is category five; it is worse than that. Hundreds of millions -300 million people- were exposed to these pollution hazards. You know, [there were] the water pollution hazards and then hundreds of millions [were] exposed to [the] air pollution problem as well. Now through all this use, we have managed to see an improvement. Beijing and the surrounding regions started monitoring and reporting air quality from 2013.
That was, you know, on the PM 2.5 level. That year, the annual average was 89.5 micrograms and last year it dropped to 30, so cut by nearly two thirds. And on the water side, the worst in category five proportion on the national level, monitoring have dropped to about 1% from 28. So that was…
SANDALOW: That’s striking progress.
MA: Yes, some striking progress as thousands of rivers running black, thousands of those canals and streams [that were] running black have been more or less cleaned up. You know, with massive, of course, investment on infrastructure like sewage plant[s], but also the corporations eventually, [became] in better compliance of the emission standards, due to the enforcement and public reporting supervision.
SANDALOW: In many places, the air pollution problems and water pollution problems are hard. But because you can smell the air when it’s dirty, because you can see dirty air, in some ways it’s easier than the invisible greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. What are the latest trends in China in terms of the global warming problem and climate change?
MA: Yeah, obviously, you know, global warming is looming larger, you know, globally. And also in China. You know, last year, I still remember it was summertime when I took a trip to the to the Jiangxi province and I got the chance to have this bird’s eye view of our largest freshwater lake, the Poyang Lake, during the monsoon season.
It was diminished to a meandering stream and very, very – [at] the lowest point since we ever have a more accurate meteorological record. So, during the summertime, you know we suffered from the extreme heat wave last year and then for about two months of time not many drops of precipitation, of rainfall, at all during the monsoon season.
So we suffered from that and from climate change as well. And of course, China started – China took this as something of a strategic issue and with President Xi, [he] made this on – in some way unexpected commitment to carbon peak and neutrality by 2060. China is going to neutralize its carbon emission, and in the year 2020 that caught many by surprise and it was – it won’t be easy because at this moment our emission, as you know, you are the authority on that, our emission is more than 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and roughly a third of the global total and by far the largest when it comes to the current level of greenhouse gas emission.
And we try to – we’re going to artificially, you know, try to peak that because unlike the Western countries which have more or less naturally peaked their carbon emission, we need to create [a] policy mechanism to try to peak our emission earlier than the projected that model and try to peak that by 2030 – before 2030 actually, and then try to use another less than 30 years to completely neutralize this, you know, 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide. While the country is still growing and still going through this industrialization and massive urbanization. So, it was not easy.
SANDALOW: And by the way, the trends you’re talking about in terms of disappearing lakes in extreme heat waves are ones that are being experienced all over the world. We have in the United States the Great Salt Lake in the western United States. And it’s shrinking and disappearing. And there are similar concerns to what you’re reporting. I know London had the first ever measurement of 40 degrees centigrade last summer during the same time as the heat wave in China.
So, these are global phenomenon that are appearing in China and elsewhere. We don’t have much time. I think this is our last question with you. I wonder if you have advice for young people around the world, in China or around the world? You’ve charted a career that’s just made such a big difference in environmental issues.
And I know that there’s people watching who are wondering. They’re wondering first, how can I help you? But also, how can I have an impact, too, and how can I make a difference? And I just wonder if you have any thoughts for particularly any younger people who may be watching on that score.
MA: I appreciate this question and I really believe that the future belongs to the young people and the whole climate impact matters more to them. And all these years, we have been very lucky to have young talents to pay attention [to]. And some of them join us. Some of them help us.
And we have many interns who helped us all these years and I appreciate that. I do believe that if we want to overcome this issue, we need participation from as many people as possible. And if we can, I trust that the power of information, if people got informed, just like in China, when they understand the impact, the health impact of the air pollution, people make their voice heard, millions upon millions, you know, on social media.
And eventually the government responded [to] that with our Clean Air Action plan and Clean Water Action plan and on the on the climate side, I hope the people, particularly the young people, also can make their voice heard, also trying to make sure that they can help to create more knowledge and more information on this.
I believe that we need to you know, just like when we try to tackle air pollution and water pollution, we need data infrastructure on the climate side. So [in] recent years what got us busy is the creation and development of the global map for zero carbon. We’re trying to copy the success on the local environment quality improvement side and to develop that to not just a global country by country map, but also drilling down to the provinces across in China.
The first three provinces put together, the[ir] emission is larger than that of the EU. And then the first six is over the total volume of the US. So, we need to drill it down to the province and then city by city and then sector by sector. Eventually facility by facility. In China, probably in this part of the world you don’t see many smokestacks and factories, but it doesn’t mean that all this massive manufacturing has disappeared.
It’s just been migrated to our parts. And now the relocated supply chain, [has been] relocated to the surrounding regions in the global south. So, we need to keep that in mind. And in China, 68% of our carbon emission is related to industrial production manufacturing. So, with that, we need to understand eventually, you know, all these products we consume, you know, they [have] all got embedded carbon in that.
And yeah, if we pay attention, if we can ask this question, have all these brands, who can make their commitments from Paris to Glasgow to Shanghai on net zero carbon emission, have they really translated their words into actions, particularly in the Global South, particularly through their massive supply chain? Scope three – the supply chain part [has] quite often been the largest chunk of their carbon footprint, but our experience is still many of them have not done that.
We’ve just launched a zero-carbon supply chain, [we’re] initiating it. So, I hope not just the brands and financial institutions and agencies in charge, pay attention. I also hope the citizens can pay attention. We’re trying to expand our Blue Map function by developing the emission factors database. And based on that, allowing people to take a picture of all these different consumer products and then figure out the embedded carbon through the AI technology, figure out the embedded carbon based on that. I hope that the young people can gain their own awareness, but [also] raise questions to those who have the power and resources and made [an] open commitment, and really hold them accountable, [and] create a global accountability mechanism together. And I do think that through this process, we can hasten the process of decarbonization and we can eventually better safeguard our planet home.
SANDALOW: Those are great words to close on Ma Jun, Thank you so much for your tremendous contributions and work. Great to see you.
MA: Thank you.
SANDALOW: Thank you.
MA: Thank you, everyone.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.