7 october 2013

Ma Jun: China needs to do its bit to combat climate change

The well-known environmentalist talks about the links between local pollution and global warming, and how China is a contributor, but also vulnerable to impacts

by Jennifer Dugan, The Guardian.UK, October 7, 2013

The same day that the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that human activity is dominant cause of climate change, a cloud of grey smog shrouded the view from the window of the office of Ma Jun, one of China's most well-known environmentalists and director of the Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs (IPE).

It's a murky reminder of China's position as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the impact its rapid economic growth has had on its environment.

But it hasn't always been that way. "In my childhood, I grew up in this city, we used to see a lot more blue sky," says Ma.

China now burns half of the world's coal and its deteriorating environment and hazardous levels of air pollution are issues that regularly makes the headlines in the local and international press. But there is also an awareness within the country that China is contributing to the global problem of climate change. "In China we need to do our own part to try to combat global climate change. We also have to take measures to adapt to this [the impacts of climate change] just like many other countries," said Ma.

This sentiment was echoed in a recent opinion piece carried in the state-controlled Global Times newspaper. "For China, what science presents [in the IPCC report] is not only an urgent climate crisis, but how much we are contributing to it," it read.

However, China is not only a contributor but is also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. A recent study complied by HSBC stated that China along with India, Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil are the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

"One thing most people would agree is that climate change would add further uncertainties to our already quite tight water supply situation in China," said Ma.

"Some of the areas in China have been under very grave water scarcity, for example the north China plain, they are facing a very serious water shortage. Per capital levels have dropped to very serious levels, including in Beijing," he added.

Through their work in the area of water, IPE has noticed that "in different areas of China there are some changes to the weather patterns and in many areas there is a reduction of rainfall which worsens the drought problems but in some other areas there is increasing precipitation," said Ma.

Ma's non-profit IPE was established in 2006 and works on environment, pollution control and sustainability issues. Their main project is to develop a national pollution map database, a massive undertaking given the size of China and the scale of the country's pollution problems.

Ma displays their pollution map of China on a large screen with blue shapes representing emittors of different types of pollution such as air, water and heavy metals. It is pretty shocking with many parts of the country, particularly the eastern sea board barely visible under all the blue shapes.

Ma says that the real barrier his organisation have found in relation to pollution control work in China is the lack of motivation and weak enforcement. At the moment pollutors do not have the motivation to improve because "the cost of violation remains low," says Ma.

"It is lower than the cost of compliance. So they [pollutors] would rather pay fines year after year rather than solving their problem. The reason behind that is because the local governments, many of them, still put GDP growth ahead of environmental protection."

There is rising awareness in China of environmental issues, and according to a recent survey the Chinese public are increasingly concerned about the quality of the country's air and water. Ma says that 30 years ago people were not as vocal or involved in environmental issues but "new tools like the internet and social media have created channels, not just for people to access information but for people to exchange views and have a debate on public issues".

He believes this sort of awareness is having an impact, especially when it comes to the disclosure of environmental information. He uses the example of air pollution monitoring "before this year our ciites were not monitoring or disclosing the PM2.5 air pollution. But now we have around 80 cities disclosing every hour to the people".

"Not only people can better protect themselves by keeping their children indoors and wearing facemasks but they demand change and the government is responding to this by creating plans to deal with the problem," he added.

Ma sees China's local pollution and environment problems as being very much linked that therefore both should be taken into consideration when it comes to finding a solution. "I hope to see an integrated solution created to deal with both the local pollution problem and the global climate change problem," he says.

"Much of these two problems have a similar source, funadamentally it is our energy source that is predominantly dependent on coal. That is the source of the problem for our local smog problem and also for our climate change contribution. We need to deal with the coal issue."

Ma isn't very optimistic about progress being made to combat climate change at an international level. "I think the international negotiations will always have its difficulities because different countries come up with very different perspectives. The idea of faireness, especially about the historic responsibilities and the current financial difficulties especially in Europe, I think all this will create a challenge."

But he is still hopeful that there is a solution and that it is more likely to come from a local level. For example the desire in China to improve the air pollution which would also help to reduce carbon emissions. "In China there is such a strong local dynamic to combat the local smog problem, the air pollution problem has created opportunities," he says.

"In China most people don't need to be convinced about climate change before they want to take action ... Hundreds of millions of people are exposed to a bad pollution problem and they do want to solve this problem."

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