Q&A with Ma Jun: Lessons from China, the global renewables leader

Dialogue Earth speaks with the environmentalist on China’s green transition and how sweeping changes have reshaped the nation’s approach to ecological management
<p>Ma Jun, founder and director of a Beijing-based environmental non profit, speaking in 2023 at a World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin, China (Image: <a href="">Faruk Pinjo</a> / <a href="">World Economic Forum</a>, <a href="">CC BY-NC-SA</a>)</p>

Ma Jun, founder and director of a Beijing-based environmental non profit, speaking in 2023 at a World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin, China (Image: Faruk Pinjo / World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA)

As the founding director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), an environmental organisation, Ma Jun has pioneered the use of comprehensive data systems to monitor environmental compliance among millions of corporations nationwide.

Ma delves into the global implications of China’s environmental policies. With the country’s aggressive push towards reducing carbon emissions and enhancing renewable energy capacity, Ma underscores the importance of integrating these efforts with global environmental strategies. His insights reveal how China’s domestic policies are influencing its international standing and offer lessons for global collaborations tackling climate change and sustainability challenges.

Dialogue Earth: Can you describe current environmental policies and their impact on China’s environmental quality?

Ma Jun: China has adopted the ecological-civilisation principle, prioritising pollution control and environmental protection. As a result, laws and regulations have been strengthened and enforcement has been significantly improved. From our perspective, as an NGO focused on using data to mobilise stakeholder participation, we have seen historic progress in China’s environmental monitoring and enforcement actions, particularly regarding transparency.

This level of transparency allows us to compile environmental quality data on water, soil, coastal seas and biodiversity, as well as track the performance of millions of corporations. Pollution control actions, over the past decade, have resulted in air pollution declining by more than 50% across major regions in China. For example, Beijing’s PM2.5 levels [tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres wide] dropped from 89.5 micrograms per cubic metre in 2013 to 32 micrograms in 2023.

Significant improvements have also been made in water quality. Sulphur dioxide emissions nationally dropped from over 20 million tonnes to below 2.5 million tonnes in 10 years. Additionally, clean air actions such as the shutting of large numbers of coal-fired boilers have created co-benefits. Such policies not only benefit China, but also the surrounding regions and global environment.

China’s coal consumption tripled from 2000 to 2012. However, since the 2013 Clean Air Action Plan, it stabilised, with thousands of coal mines shutting down, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

From 2014, thousands of factories, power plants and wastewater-treatment facilities were required to disclose hourly monitoring data. We visualised this data launching the Blue Map app, enabling public identification and correction of violations, pushing major emitters towards compliance.

By making environmental data public, we aim to mitigate pollution from the global supply chain. Today, we track around 16 million corporations in China, mapping them and colour-coding based on their environmental performance, helping international and local brands enhance their supply chain management. Before signing contracts, many companies compare their suppliers against our database of violators, prompting substantial changes in environmental [business] practices, with tens of thousands disclosing their emissions.

Environmental policies in China, along with green supply chain and green finance requirements, facilitate ongoing low-carbon transitions. Since China pledged to peak carbon emissions [by 2030] and achieve carbon neutrality [by 2060], some energy-intensive industries have also taken action, with over half of steel companies now reporting their carbon emissions and a third disclosing product carbon footprints.

However, the post-pandemic economic recovery, energy market volatility and heightened geopolitical tensions have led major economies to ramp up fossil-fuel production, increasing global carbon emissions. With coal consumption increasing again, ensuring energy security without reverting to fossil fuels remains a challenge for China and other key Asian exporters.

What role does Southeast Asia play in shaping international environmental agreements and what challenges does the region face?

Southeast Asia plays an important role in the green transition globally. Since the end of Covid restrictions, I attended several meetings in Southeast Asia and have been very impressed by the region’s robust socio-economic development. There’s a strong sense of optimism and open-mindedness towards learning from best practices. However, rapid economic growth often leads to increased emissions unless robust policies are implemented.

We have seen real interest from stakeholders, including international agencies, national government agencies and NGOs, in pursuing a green transition. Despite this, some countries in the region lag in their green transition compared to their economic development, risking the repetition of mistakes made by China that may expose people to pollution. Some cities in Southeast Asia face significant pollution issues, reminiscent of the pollution days we experienced in China. There are opportunities to learn from our experiences and one of them is to synergise pollution control with climate actions.

What are the key challenges and opportunities in China’s transition from high-carbon to renewable energy?

China’s renewable energy transition success stems from continued policy support for both production and research and development. Providing space for private entrepreneurs, instead of state-owned enterprises, has spurred market competitiveness and innovation. Some leading entrepreneurs have invested a significant portion of their income in technological innovation, which has been very beneficial.

China is set to achieve its 2030 target of 1,200 gigawatts of solar and wind power ahead of schedule, with electric vehicle penetration rates also surpassing targets. Investments in renewable energy and related industries have helped generate new growth points for China. These sectors, crucial amid a declining property market, accounted for 40% of China’s GDP growth last year. 

How does the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) impact local ecosystems in host countries?

The Belt and Road Initiative includes a green component, focusing on environmental sustainability. Many Belt and Road countries, particularly in the Global South, face challenges similar to those China has faced, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. China has developed practical solutions to these problems, which can be helpful to these countries.

For instance, the global supply chain has historically had a significant environmental impact on China, with waste being dumped in our backyards, contaminating our air, water and soil. Now, as the supply chain relocates to other countries, there’s potential for China to cooperate with [Southeast Asian] countries to address these issues. On the energy transition front, many Belt and Road countries are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels and lack basic electricity services. There is a real possibility to tap into China’s solutions to hasten the energy transition and improve energy access in a more affordable and sustainable way.

How has China’s waste import ban reshaped the global recycling industry?

China’s ban on foreign garbage has significantly reshaped the global waste recycling industry. China used to be a major importer and processor of global waste. The abrupt stop of this practice has had global implications. Now, countries must find other channels to deal with their waste problems. Globally, each country needs to find ways to manage their own waste, becoming more self-sufficient and self-reliant.

China has set targets for 2025 and 2030 to build its own garbage-sorting systems. Although Covid-19 disrupted this process to some extent, with some cities behind schedule, there is still momentum to achieve these targets. Some cities in China have managed to build sophisticated garbage-sorting schemes comparable to those in Japan. The Blue Map app encourages users to participate in surveys to help us understand garbage-sorting practices in their regions. The number of compounds they helped survey has approached 100,000, helping assess the performances of cities.

Finally, what message would you like to leave for the Southeast Asia region regarding environmental collaboration?

We are in the same region and face similar environmental challenges. Southeast Asia is one of the most vulnerable areas to global climate change and environmental impacts. I hope we can find ways to collaborate even further. Practical solutions developed in China may fit local conditions in Southeast Asia. If interested, Southeast Asian countries will find willing Chinese partners to join their climate and pollution-control efforts. Collaboration, knowledge and experience sharing are crucial to overcoming these challenges and achieving a green and low-carbon transition.