Engaging Social Media in the Fight for Environmental Sustainability
China often makes headlines today as extreme levels of pollution in its cities reach record levels. Indeed China alone consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. During the last peak pollution period in January 2013, pollution clouds hovering over China were so thick they could be clearly distinguished by satellites orbiting the Earth
What are the Chinese authorities doing to address these issues? An article in the South China Morning Post revealed that authorities have more of a short-term crisis management strategy than a long-term vision. The municipality of Beijing has implemented new procedures to be applied in periods when pollution is at its most severe (when the index PM 2.5* is greater than 300 for more than three consecutive days), including forbidding the use and operation of certain vehicles and factories. Such policies, however, may have limited impacts given that 60% of the urban pollution in Beijing purportedly comes from the neighbouring province of Hebei, where the municipality has no authority.
Yet CNN has revealed new trends that may expedite changes to existing policies and practices. They identify the growing push of social media networks as a force and tool that has the potential to radically alter the way the public engages with environmental issues.
Since the end of 2011, more than 80 Chinese cities have reported real-time particle levels of PM 2.5 in the air. While China did not initially intend to publish this type of information, social networks have changed the media landscape and forced the government to release data collected.
Social networks also enable the establishment of new forms of collaborative mapping: teams of scientists from the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) have developed a platform that identifies polluting factories in the country based on information contributed by users. After verification, the map of polluting factories is updated.
These new tools can help keep the Chinese public informed and up-to-date on pertinent environmental issues. In this way, social networks and collaborative mapping tools might then also become an effective means of increasing public pressure on institutional and governmental officials, and/or private companies.
However, actually reducing pollution in major Chinese cities will require decision-makers to earnestly implement existing ideas and proposals. Drawing a comparison between the city of Berlin in the 19th century and present-day Beijing, Elan Frankel shows that efforts need to be focused on reducing energy. Much like Berlin in the 19th century, pollution issues in Beijing today largely stem from a national economic boom that has its base in the excessive use of coal. Today, many Berlin buildings have been renovated to reduce energy costs, encouraging investors at the same time to follow suit and turn to this burgeoning industry. Elan Frankel hopes that, as China develops, it will choose a path that sees environmental sustainability as synonymous with innovation.