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Aug 13, 2014

Five Years of Measuring Transparency in China: What Progress Has Been Made?

It seems counter-intuitive that publicly-available data needs a grassroots hack to make it accessible. Yet, in a sea of regulations and information, official environmental can be difficult to parse. The risk of information overload looms especially large in China, whose rapidly growing economy makes transparent environmental monitoring increasingly urgent and difficult. How do pollutant levels compare with air quality standards? Is water pollution improving or declining over time? What does all of this mean for personal and public health? Without a way to find a signal through the noise, environmental data can become a smokescreen, rather than an indicator.

To address this risk, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) developed the Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI), which takes a bird’s-eye look at environmental compliance. Rather than examining how well 120 Chinese cities adhere to water and air pollution regulations, it ranks major urban areas on the transparency of their environmental monitoring and compliance information. Specifically, the IPE and NRDC examine how well cities stack up against four key metrics: the comprehensiveness, timeliness, integrity, and user-friendliness of their data.

→ Watch our interview with Ma Jun, Director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs.

The Pollution Information Transparency Index

These four metrics, in turn, score eight different categories, which encompass highly specific issues, like sewage discharge information requests and fees, as well as broader trends, such as a the response to government efforts to address environmental issues in specific sectors, regions, or facilities.  Three of these criteria – the daily pollution monitoring disclosure results, complaint and petition records, and compliance with information disclosure requests – weigh especially heavily in the final rankings, which score cities out of 100 points. A grade of 60 represents a “pass,” or a city that meets the mandates of Chinese monitoring and disclosure laws. A score of 89.5 or higher marks a transparency “all-star,” a city that provides consistently transparent data across all eight categories.  

In the 2014 PITI, Ningbo, Beijing, Qingdao, Zhenjiang, and Shanghai claimed the top five spots, while Datong, Yangquan, Yuxi, Jilin and Shaoguan finished last. The five top-scoring cities reflect a larger trend within the PITI; developed regions along the south and southeastern coast tend to perform well, while less developed inland and western regions score more poorly. In a 2012 interview with the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Ma Jun, the Director of the IPE, said, “It’s very important for the coastal region to perform well, because this is the region that is the most densely populated, with the most developed industries and economic development and – so far – it has more emission discharges than any other region.” However, Mr. Ma also points out that the IPE has “noticed a trend for the big polluters to migrate inland, away from the coastal regions and into the inland and the western regions in China.” The PITI, in other words, faces a challenge common to environmental indices – how to account for the flow of pollution across boundaries, away from wealthy areas, and towards developing ones. While these less populated areas may have a larger capacity to absorb pollution, they still contain fragile ecosystems. They often sit near the sources of major rivers that carry damages to communities and ecosystems downstream. Additionally, these areas may not stay sparsely populated for long. Economic growth in central and western China leads the country, and outpaces the more environmentally transparent developed coastal regions.  

Despite these concerns, the fifth anniversary of the PITI also tracks rapid progress since its the IPE’s “icebreaking” dialogue on environmental transparency first began in 2006. For instance, 23 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities use integrated online platforms to release monitoring information, and “are increasingly well-placed to provide the data to drive discussions about environmental management.” This trend was especially pronounced in developed areas within eastern China, specifically in the Shandong, Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangsu, and Hebei provinces. Many inner Western provinces, including Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Guangxi, have also made progress and “essentially achieved working order” with their online data platforms. In contrast, the first 2008 PITI report included only seven mentions of cities that had implemented an online platform to share monitoring information with the public. 

The Role of Public Participation in Environmental Monitoring      

Recent legislative updates seem geared to support this turn towards online tools as a means for transparency, and transparency as a means of ensuring environmental compliance. In April, amendments to China’s Environmental Protection Law instructed government departments to strengthen data release mechanisms. These changes, the first in 25 years, include a new system for fining pollution violations and a performance assessment system that considers officials’ environmental records alongside their economic ones.  

When the law goes into effect on January 1, 2015, it will also give non-governmental organizations (NGOs) latitude “to take legal action against polluters on behalf of the public interest.” While environmental organizations note several gaps in the legal access this provides, the amendment still significantly expands the public’s ability to hold polluters accountable. The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s "Guidance Opinion on Promoting Public Participation in Environmental Protection" (Guidance Opinion), released in May 2014, supports this aspect of the new legislation, encouraging government agencies to ensure that citizens have the information  to hold polluters accountable. The document encourages government departments to use online platforms and popular media to share monitoring results with the public. While the impact of these changes remain uncertain, the new legislation continues a trend towards the opening of environmental discussions and a greater willingness to invite “society [to] participate in the process of solving” problems in environmental monitoring and compliance.  

Mr. Ma is among those who believe increased public attention will “help China overcome barriers like local protectionism, weak enforcement and low penalties for violations” in addressing environmental challenges. However, while access to information is essential, building the kind of civic engagement that gives it teeth is its own kind of challenge. A 2013 study found that most provincial environmental protection officials still view non-governmental organizations’ influence as limited with respect to data and monitoring.  A June 23rd Weibo search found similarly modest levels of attention to the PITI in the public eye, generating 857 results. In comparison, a July 2nd search for the state’s eco-city rankings, which benefitted from major media attention from state media, returned 199,810 results. This disparity illustrates another challenge facing increased public participation; the disparity non-governmental organizations face in terms of resources and media access.   

Despite these challenges, civic engagement forms one of the most promising ways to incentivize local and regional governments to strive for improved rankings on transparency metrics like the PITI. Finding ways to bring data transparency considerations into broad public discussions of environmental issues, in other words, is crucial to determining the index’s impact. Examples of the volume of public calls for reliable and accurate environmental data abound. Hot-button topics, such as levels of the dangerous air pollutant PM2.5, are capable of generating widespread public engagement. During January 14-18th, 2014, a period of high air pollution in Beijing, the term “PM2.5” received nearly 30,000 mentions on Weibo.

Pollution Map App

To bring attention to the critical – but easily overlooked – importance of environmental data as an enabler of these discussions, and as a metric of environmental performance in its own right, the IPE has released an app, Pollution Map, along with the fifth PITI report. The app addresses the need to mobilize monitoring, and is designed to ensure the public can both understand and act on increasing volumes of technical data. Pollution Map organizes publicly available information from 15,000 factories across China; users can search for air and water quality information by region, by city, by pollutant, and by polluter. 

A screen from the IPE’s Pollution Map app displays air quality details, along with any associated health advisories, for the 190 cities it covers. The backdrop changes to indicate the time of day and the air quality.  

Designed to bring pollution data to life, background screens reminiscent of the iPhone’s weather app paint a quick picture of the local environmental climate, and its associated health risks. In addition to contextualizing pollution levels according to public health, the app allows users to track trends in pollution levels over time. Features such as a location’s 24-hour or month-long Chinese Air Quality Index (AQI) score and PM2.5 levels, give greater shape to – and may help citizens track improvements or falls in – air quality.  

The Pollution Maps displays either the Chinese AQI – or Air Quality Index – or Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5)  levels, over the course of either 24 hours, or 30 days, to enable users to note trends in a location’s air quality history.

In addition to synthesizing and translating the impact of air and water quality data, the app makes the connections between pollution and polluters more explicit. Pollution Map maintains a list of the highest emitter of each pollutant within each region. It also uses real-time pollution monitoring data to enable users to search for and share major sources of atmospheric pollution, or, in other words, to “name and shame” the worst offenders. On the day of the press conference announcing Pollution Map’s release, for example, the app identified 370 large industrial companies that were currently producing excessive emissions.

While the app is currently only available in China, the IPE website provides similar analysis through pollution diagrams, searchable maps of pollution records, and annual records of trends and changes in regional air, water, and solid waste pollution. An English translation of the PITI report is also forthcoming, and will likely continue to influence the global supply chains that run through China. In his 2012 interview, Mr. Ma notes that American companies including GE, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Walmart have used the IPE’s data to help track the environmental performance of their suppliers in China, influencing hundreds of factories. Ironically, some of the same economic factors driving pollution in China also provide windows for conversation and change.  

These kinds of nexuses give environmental activists like Mr. Ma optimism for the future of environmental transparency in China. In addition to a “rising social awareness” of the social and health costs of pollution, leadership from non-governmental organizations and the expansion of environmental transparency by Chinese government agencies have “created a unique opportunity for stakeholders to try to work together.” Transparency remains both a necessary prerequisite and a unique indicator of the progress of these kinds emerging collaborations.

Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies students William Miao, MEM ’14, and Andrew Moffat, MEM ’16, both researchers at Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, contributed to this article. The video was made by Daphne Yin, MEM ’16.