An environmental group in China is seeking to unleash the power of the Internet in its campaign against the country's major polluters.
The nongovernmental Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPEA) unveiled a Web site last week that provides information about air pollution in China and the environmental record of factories and power plants.
According to Ma Jun, the director of the Beijing-based IPEA, the aim of the Chinese-language Web site is to make information about air quality easily accessible to the public and to make companies in China accountable for their environmental behavior.
The launch of the site highlights the push by Chinese environmentalists to put pressure on major polluters in the country, which is expected to soon overtake the United States as the world's largest carbon emitter.
"Information is a powerful tool," Ma said at a recent news conference. "Access to information is a precondition for public participation."
The China Air Pollution Map (http://air.ipe.org.cn) site is a public database containing air pollution data published by local and central environmental offices and media reports of official environmental reports since 2004.
It maps the locations of more than 4,200 factories that have violated the country's air emission standards during the last four years, including 40 operated by multinational companies jointly with Chinese firms. Among the biggest air polluters identified in the map are 300 power plants around the country.
The database also provides information about the air quality, sources of air pollution and waste water discharge in 15 provinces and 150 cities in southern China, including Hong Kong.
It shows the ranking of these Chinese provinces and cities based on their air quality. The country's leading export producers, Jiangsu in east China and Guangdong in south China, were listed as the top sources of industrial emissions among the 15 provinces. Wuhan in central China and Nanjing in east China were the most polluted cities on the list, based on the government's air pollution index.
The Web site not only seeks to make the Chinese public aware of pollution sources in their communities, it also provides them with a forum to report suspected violations of the government's anti-pollution laws.
However, the site's air pollution data is still incomplete and limited to areas south of the Yangtze River. The institute plans to update the map with additional data about provinces and cities in northern China in the next phase of this project, which is supported by two Hong Kong-based foundations.
This is not the first time Ma Jun and his institute have used the Internet to promote public awareness about environmental pollution.
Last year, they put out their first online database, the China Water Pollution Map (http://www.ipe.org.cn), which listed about 9,400 cases of water pollution by factories around the country, including 280 operated by foreign firms. Using data compiled from official government reports, the map identified the locations of these factories, which failed to meet the government's anti-pollution standards.
The Web site attracted considerable attention in the domestic and international media and the response from the blacklisted companies was encouraging, though still limited. At least 50 companies responded to the site but most were foreign firms and only two were domestic companies. Two have so far cleared their names from the list by either complying with the anti-pollution rules or undergoing an audit by a third party.
Ma Jun told the China Daily he hopes the air and water pollution maps will pressure polluters to make improvements and encourage more people to join the campaign to protect China's environment.
China's environmental authorities have already recognized Ma Jun's work in compiling the water pollution map by naming him as one of China's "Green Warriors in 2006."
Time Magazine also selected him last year as one of the "100 Who Shape Our World," describing his 1999 book, "China's Water Crisis," as "the country's first great environmental call to arms."
Having worked as a journalist in the past, it is perhaps not surprising that Ma Jun knew the power of information. As an environmental advocate, he — and his institute — has now emerged as a powerful voice for the growing green movement in China.