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Can social media clear air over China?

By Kristie Lu Stout, CNN
April 19, 2013 -- Updated 0616 GMT (1416 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese environmentalist enlists social media to fight pollution
  • Microbloggers invited to send photos of suspected polluters
  • Photos are displayed on a map to name and shame offending companies
  • Social pressure recently pushed the government to improve air quality readings

Editor's note: Each month, CNN's Kristie Lu Stout sits down with three China experts to discuss what's really driving the world power and economic giant. This month's episode will focus on China's pollution problem. See here for air times for CNN's "On China."

Hong Kong (CNN) -- China is literally choking on itself.

It uses as much coal as the rest of the world combined. The Beijing smog in January was so thick it could be seen clearly in space.

And, most shockingly, China's bad air is said to kill nearly 700,000 people a year.

To fight China's catastrophic air pollution, China's eco-warriors need to know where it's coming from. And big gains are being made on that front.

After intense online public pressure last year, more than 80 cities in China have started to monitor and publish real-time data on the dangerous air pollutant PM 2.5.

PM 2.5s are particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, small enough to penetrate and lodge deep into the lungs.

On China: China's role in climate change
On China: Overreliance on coal
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Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun says the new rollout of PM 2.5 readings in China is the direct result of online people power.

"At the beginning of 2011, when the government revised its air quality standards, it stated in the first draft that PM 2.5 would not be monitored or disclosed," Ma said.

"And then people made such an outcry over the Internet, especially through the microblogs. Eventually, the government changed its policy by the end of the year."

Ma's book "China's Water Crisis" has been compared to Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the 1962 publication which exposed the effects of pesticides on the environment and since been named one of the top 25 science books of all time.

A former journalist, Ma has become one of China's leading environmental watchdogs. It's his personal and professional mission to bring better air to the people of China. To do just that, he's using social technology as a force for change.

Ma and his team at the Beijing-based non-profit Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) have launched a social media mapping program to name and shame China's biggest polluters.

Called "Take a picture to locate a polluter," the mission of the project is clear. Chinese netizens send pictures of suspected polluters to Ma and his team via the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo. IPE then fact-checks and uploads the data to its online map.

IPE monitors 15,000 enterprises which are on a "State Monitored Enterprises" list published by the government. Ma says these enterprises are responsible for 65% of China's water and air pollution.

With the help of Weibo users, IPE has now located nearly 4,000 of those enterprises on its digital map.

The rising tide of public outrage is an opportunity for the new leadership of China to get serious about pollution control
Barbara Finamore, Natural Resources Defense Council

"The next step is a call for total transparency and the disclosure of all these major polluters in China so they will all be shown on a digital map," Ma said.

Social protest in China has forced the government's hand to offer better air quality monitoring. Social mapping has expanded access to pollution data in a user-friendly way.

But can social technology ultimately help clear the haze in China?

Barbara Finamore, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council's China program in Beijing, helps the government develop its own blueprint for sustainability. She calls China's social activism an opportunity for Beijing.

"The rising tide of public outrage is an opportunity for the new leadership of China to get serious about pollution control, to strengthen the standards, to tighten enforcement, and to really establish a strong rule of law -- using the power of the public."

Christine Loh, the under secretary for the environment in Hong Kong, agrees that social media is an environmental game-changer: "It's not good enough just to say, 'Hey, things are bad and here's the data.' So I think it's going to lead to a very fundamental change."

"It forces people to be much better educated about pollution. And secondly, it will have an impact on the speed of change in government policies," Loh added.

China's eco-warriors have said repeatedly the biggest hurdle to change is not a lack of money or even technology. China has the cash and the leadership in sustainable technology to roll out tools to green the country.

The biggest challenge is the lack of motivation -- the lack of a strong enforcement of rules and regulations that should come from successful environmental lawsuits and litigation.

Ma says his social tools will change that, forcing China's worst offenders to be accountable for their environmental practices.

"Their color (on the map) is going to change if they break the rules and regulations," says Ma.

"With that, we hope to break the protection by the local government for those polluters and also help people collect the evidence so they can file a lawsuit in a far easier way."

So give them the data. Have them argue about the benefits for change.

And take a deep breath.

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