Coal-fired plants continue to hamper China's ability to achieve its green targets

Data is Power: Tracking China’s Progress Towards Its Green Targets

Environmental pioneer Ma Jun is optimistic but says economic concerns are challenging climate initiatives

By Monica Wang, J.D. Candidate, Harvard Law School Class of 2024

After several decades of unprecedented economic growth, China has vowed to address environmental concerns at home and take the lead on global climate change. From tackling air and water pollution issues such as smog in large cities to articulating a new “1+N” policy framework as a signal of the country’s serious commitment to its dual climate targets of 2030 peak emissions and 2060 carbon neutrality, China has set lofty ambitions. But how well is the country progressing towards its goals?

Ma Jun speaking at the World Economic Forum (Credit: WEF)

Ma Jun’s Blue Map, the first public environmental database in China that tracks air and water quality as well as pollution data at a local level, seeks to provide the answers. A journalist-turned-environmentalist and the founding director of the prominent nonprofit Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), Ma believes that data and transparency are powerful checks on China’s green targets. At a recent Critical Issues Confronting China talk hosted by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Ma spoke with Professor Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, about the pressing need for real-time, granular data to accelerate China’s progress towards a greener environment. 

Five key takeaways:

1. Significant headwinds hinder China’s green progress.

China has emerged very recently from three years of COVID-induced lockdown, only to face turbulent markets and rising geopolitical tensions. As a result, environmental and climate initiatives have taken a back seat to economic concerns. In particular, China faces an energy crisis that has been exacerbated by the ongoing war in Europe. Recent power shortages and outages only highlight that, despite the country’s massive investments in this area, the transition to renewable energy is far from complete. Coal remains a mainstay because of its importance to energy security: the shift is not so much from coal to renewable sources, but instead in coal plants moving from coastal regions and population centers to the more sparsely-populated western provinces. While identifying the existing gaps in the energy transition, Ma argues that that a granular database will also help provinces and cities share best practices and coordinate with each other. 

Beyond economic and geopolitical challenges, Ma also points out that the climate crisis itself is worsening. For example, the Yangtze River Basin has suffered from extreme heat in the form of an unprecedented months-long drought during the monsoon season. Additionally, the Zhengzhou flooding two years ago has called attention to the serious effects of climate change. “Increasingly, people are worried about climate change,” Ma observes. China must grapple with increasingly pervasive incidents of climate change like these in order to make progress toward its green targets.

2. At the same time, government-led improvements in data transparency have elevated the need to address environmental concerns.

Ma’s Blue Map gathers data from an array of government agencies, ranging from environmental protection, water, land, and marine resources to housing, development, and industry. While Ma acknowledges that data remains a sensitive topic, he has observed a general trend toward more government transparency. “Government agencies are getting better at transparency,” Ma remarks. For example, the number of environmental violation records released by the government has risen from a mere 2,000 in 2006 to 162,000 in 2017, signaling China’s willingness to recognize and address shortcomings, often in the form of emissions violations by state-owned enterprises. 

China has also passed legislation mandating corporate environmental disclosure, which Ma applauds as fulfilling promises made at Conferences of the Parties (COPs) from Paris to Glasgow. “This is in line with global corporate accountability,” he says. “Through voluntary and pioneer disclosures, it is now possible to build a corporate greenhouse gas emissions accounting platform and start understanding the embedded carbon content of products and services.” The Blue Map currently tracks around a million corporations, helping green banking do due diligence and ensuring transparency in the global supply chain in an effort to tackle the climate crisis. 

3. Data is power in driving citizen actions through micro-reporting.

At a grassroots level, data is empowering, because it equips citizens with the knowledge and ability to report local violations. The purpose of the Blue Map is to help the Chinese people understand and visualize environmental data so that they can share local violations via social media, engage in micro-reporting, and ultimately keep both companies and the government accountable to their green promises. “We color code the data and make it easy for citizens to share this data via social media to enable micro-reporting,” Ma says. “This has forced thousands of emitters to address their environmental violations.” 

In particular, Ma highlights that citizen actions have been successful in addressing air and water pollution problems such as smog. In Beijing, for example, the PM 2.5 concentration has declined by roughly two-thirds, greatly improving air quality in the city. In comparison, climate change is a harder collective-action problem to tackle because local effects are less palpable and public opinion is more difficult to build. “The effects of climate change are not as apparent locally compared to other problems like air and water pollution,” Ma explains. Nevertheless, Ma remains optimistic that granular province- and city-level indices will serve as powerful calls to action. 

4. China’s climate actions require a robust data infrastructure.

China views the timelines for carbon peak and neutrality as critical goals and has set a strategic direction at the highest government level toward achieving those goals. But Ma emphasizes that step-by-step action requires coordination among many moving parts. A carbon map that drills down into provinces and cities to show variations in emissions and energy consumption will illustrate that some parts of the countries are leading, while others are chasing. Together with an assessment of listed companies, a carbon peak and neutrality index can help China take more effective climate actions. “The hope with this database is not just to identify the gaps but also to share best practices,” Ma says. 

Titled “Blue Map and Green Choice,” Ma’s presentation stresses that by building a robust data infrastructure, China can start focusing on the sources of emissions instead of just improving end-of-pipe technologies. Ultimately, Ma wants the people of China to know that they have better choices and options involving a greener future.   

5. There remain opportunities for U.S.-China and global collaboration on corporate accountability for climate change.

“There is an opportunity for collaboration,” Ma repeats. His ambition is to build a global tracking system to keep companies accountable regarding the 1.5 degrees Celsius target set at the Paris COP. With seven years left for China to reach peak emissions, Ma believes that the key lies in bringing in stakeholders beyond the government—in fact, corporations are responsible for 68% of those efforts. And so, his database is focused on increasing company-level data so that (1) local companies are aware of their track records and (2) global players like Gap, H&M, and Uniqlo can improve their own supply chains by upping sourcing standards. More importantly, to build a truly global tracking system, Ma points out that global efforts are necessary. At the end of the talk, Ma and Professor Schrag agree that the U.S., China, and other countries must work together to increase corporate accountability for climate change and ultimately tackle climate change as a collective issue.