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Waste management and environmentalism in China
Waste management and environmentalism in China

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2.1 The citizens mobilise

Citizens, particularly the middle class, are at the forefront of holding polluting companies to account in the court of public opinion. Citizens are also becoming active critics of the government’s lack of control and motivation to tackle environmental degradation, first taking to the internet to pour out their disappointment, but more recently taking to the streets to protest. Smartphone applications and handheld devices allow citizens to monitor and track pollution levels in their neighbourhood, providing an alternative source to official monitoring and democratising environmental data. Some commentators have begun to talk of a nascent citizen science emerging in China, which is explained in Box 5.

Box 5 Citizen science in China

Citizen science is when citizens participate in scientific data collection. Their results can feed directly into scientific research, for example, climate models. These models can further engage the public by feeding back to them the results and uses of their data collection through public meetings. The interest in public data collection in China has been facilitated not only by smartphones and the internet, but also by the lack of transparency in the Chinese Government. In 2011, the US Embassy placed an air quality monitor on the roof of its Beijing Embassy in Chaoyang District, and each day tweeted the reading for levels of PM2.5 particulates (small enough to enter the lungs and even the bloodstream). This revealed that the air quality was much worse than the government was saying. This led many citizens to begin to monitor air quality themselves using equipment in backpacks, kites and smartphone apps. Citizen science brings climate science up close and personal, and enables people to become actively involved in environmental conservation.

Activity 6 Use of social media

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

You can check out the latest tweet for the reading from the monitor on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing: beijingair [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Here’s an example of what it may look like.

Described image
Figure 18 The Twitter feed for the air quality monitor on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing (US Embassy, 2017)

Reading the first tweet in Figure 18:

  • 11-12-2017 is the date, 12 November 2017 (remember, in the USA, the month is placed before the day)
  • 19:00 is the Beijing time of day the reading was taken, using the 24-hour clock (i.e. 7 p.m.)
  • PM2.5 is the pollutant being measured
  • 65.0 is the PM2.5 reading in micrograms per cubic metre, µg/m3
  • 156 is the Air Quality Index (AQI) which interprets the PM2.5 reading for health risk using Table 4 below
  • ‘unhealthy’ is the AQI.
Table 4 US-EPA Air Quality Index values, health concerns and colour codes (World Air Quality, 2016)
  • a.If you found yourself in Beijing when the AQI was hazardous, what could you do to protect yourself?
  • b.Try searching for air quality information in your area. Use a search term such as ‘air quality index’.
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  • a.The current advice for hazardous levels is that everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion. Advice may always be subject to change as medical knowledge is updated.
  • b.Hopefully you were able to find the air quality index in your area. In Birmingham (UK) on 3 November 2017, the index band on the DEFRA website was low (3) and green.

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection provides its own air quality data for cities throughout China and you should be able to find this information by using a search term such as ‘air quality Chinese cities’.