ObserverHe is not as well known as Al Gore or David Attenborough but among green campaigners, no one has a bigger role in tackling climate change than Ma Jun. As China's economic growth races on at breakneck speed and with more dirty, coal-burning power plants coming on line each year, the world's most populous nation will soon overtake the US as the biggest greenhouse gas emitter.
Ma, 39, has emerged as the powerful voice of a budding green movement that is forcing industry and China's tightly run state to be more accountable for the long-term consequences of their rush to get rich.
He founded the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which is among those leading the charge to clean up the air and rivers of China, a monumental task. Pollution is leaking beyond its borders. Sand storms caused by desertification blast across Korea and Japan all the way over the Pacific to America. And as the dump for 50 billion tonnes of effluent annually, the rivers' toxic discharges threaten marine life hundreds of miles beyond China's seas.
The country's environmental importance was apparent last month when George Bush said he would not sign up to ambitious new goals to prevent global warming unless China was involved. President Hu Jintao rejected binding targets, but said China would reduce emissions voluntarily and has unveiled its first plan to deal with climate change. There is even talk that after years of red politics and black capitalism China may yet turn green.
Ma has cause for optimism. The ex-journalist switched to activism in 1997 after hearing Chinese hydro-engineers boast that the Yellow River was a model of water management, even though it was so over-dammed and exploited that it failed to reach the sea on more than 200 days each year. That inspired Ma to write an influential book warning of an impending crisis.
There was not much an ordinary citizen could do then, when green campaigners were considered a threat to a government fixated with economic growth regardless of the environmental cost. But much has changed. Since 2003, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has done more than any leader to press the environmental case. Five years ago, there were fewer than 50 registered green NGOs in the country. Today there are almost 3,000.
Ma's institute's online China Water Pollution Map - ipe.org.cn - names and shames the worst offending regions and companies. It is a symbol of a new kind of social activism in China: pragmatic rather than idealistic, and relying more on maps and data than votes and speeches to lobby for change.
If polluting companies want their names removed from the map they have to accept an environmental audit from a third party and act on any problems. This has prompted a response by 30 companies, mostly multinationals. Six have already agreed to audits. Among them, Panasonic Battery in Shanghai which is refitting its factory's water system.
'It is not just because of us,' said Ma. 'But it is really good. They sent a big delegation to our office to explain their actions and they have invited us to go and check their plant.'
Not everyone is as receptive. Ma says Pepsi, General Motors and five or six British firms are among those who have not responded. There are 80 multinationals among the 5,500 violators listed, but they face the fiercest criticism. Ma is unapologetic: 'Multinationals are more sensitive to public pressure because they have bigger brand names and they have made commitments to be environmentally sensitive. Chinese firms are not used to this kind of pressure yet.'
To make domestic firms feel the heat, he plans to target their overseas buyers and suppliers. 'Globalised manufacturing and procurement mean that a lot of high-polluting, heavy duty jobs are transferred to China,' says Ma. 'We will ask major companies, such as Wal-Mart, Microsoft and IBM to put pressure on their Chinese suppliers.'
New laws have been implemented on environmental protection in China and the latest five-year plan includes ambitious targets to cut pollution by 10 per cent and improve energy efficiency by 20 per cent. But these fine-sounding directives run up against resistance by local authorities still focused on rapid development, and fear from companies that environmental concerns will drive them out of business.
'Managers from one big Chinese noodle company came here and told me, "We are just a farmers' company. Think how it will impact on us." But I tell them the rules are made by the government. Every firm should comply. It doesn't mean they can't compete.'
So how does it feel for the head of a small campaign to have executives from some of the world's biggest companies knocking at his door to explain themselves? 'It shows that China has bottlenecks. Environmental problems cannot be resolved here the way they are resolved in other countries. I heard that 80 per cent of the environmental problems in the US are solved in court. That can't happen here.'
These 'bottlenecks' are the one-party state with no independent justice system, no political accountability and no free media. For decades, there was nothing to stop Communist cadres and factory bosses from pumping out poisons.
However, the market economy has given consumers more choice, the media have greater freedom and businesses are gradually paying attention to corporate social responsibility. 'This is a lucky time for us because central government leaders have changed their mindset,' Ma says. 'We have a vibrant economy. There is over-supply of goods. That means strong competition and more consumer power.'
His next project is an air quality map. There is still no comprehensive data for carbon emissions despite China's G8 promise of significant achievements in this area. Ma says China needs time to come to terms with climate change. His goal is to ensure China's natural heritage is not destroyed by economic growth. 'China is moving forward. Developing countries are not the real culprits. Rich countries must take responsibility.'