Environmental group Airman traverses China looking for illegal polluters

Airman (好空气保卫侠) is an environmental protection group founded by activist Zhao Liang in 2014. The organization brings together young people to travel the country armed with nothing but their eyesights, sense of smell and a pollution monitoring phone app to find and report illegal polluters. Since it’s founding, the organization has traveled to 28 provinces, investigated sites in 90 cities, and worked on more than 500 environmental rectification cases. This year, it has been nominated for the SEE Ecological award.

Founder Zhao Liang was active in environmental efforts long before founding Airman. In 2012 photos of Zhao jumping into a freezing lake to save a flock of Oriental Storks that had been poisoned by water pollution won him brief internet fame. In 2013, he organized an environmental service center in Tianjin, which received the “Angel Grant” from the SEE Foundation.

Airman was founded just as China’s air pollution problem was reaching drastic levels. In 2013 air pollution became a great public concern when in January four spells of dense smog covered thirty provinces and Beijing residents enjoyed only five clear days. A report claimed that out of China’s 500 largest cities only 1% met the WHO’s standard for clean air, and seven of those cities were among the world’s ten most polluted.

Airman carried out its first investigation in Handan, Hebei, on a steel factory that had been reported as polluting. Because the factory releases most of its emissions at night, Zhao Liang slept in a field nearby to gather the data. When he woke up he was covered in a grey dust and ran to the local environmental protection administration to report his findings.

Before investigations like these were carried out, it was commonly believed local law enforcement was to blame for pollution issues. In reality, many emitters actively tamper with government pollution sensors, or find other ways to fake data. Many polluters will abide by regulations during the daytime, and release illegal levels of pollution at night. Airman volunteers have even been harassed by businesses that they have reported.

One of the organization’s turning points came in 2015, when they started using drones. Using drones not only allowed them to capture better images of polluters, but also to carry out their investigations from a safer distance. Currently, Airman carries out investigations in groups of three, with one person responsible for photography, one for driving the car when they have to leave quickly, and one to coordinate the overall situation – gathering data, working the drones, and managing personnel.

Part of Airman’s work is closely cooperating with local government’s environmental agencies. Previously, the organization’s strategy was a “one on one” talk with local officials. However, they have since discovered that it is more effective to focus on “multilateralism” by encouraging more social actors to participate in governance. In 2017, Airman discovered China’s primary aluminum producer CHALCO illegally dumping hazardous waste. Airman worked with the media, the Environmental Protection Administration and other agencies to organize discussions on how to solve the issue. Airman also wrote to the China Securities Regulatory Commission asking the commission to supervise CHALCO’s further disclosure of environmental information, and invited the company to join in the discussions.

Airman has recently shifted its focus to stopping pollution before it starts by promoting the concept of “Green Factory Building” (绿色工厂共建), which encourages enterprises that have environmental issues to actively seek out the help of the Environmental Protection Administration and third party supervisory agencies to participate in problem-solving efforts. Previously, most of Airman’s work had been to uncover bad examples to show what should not be happening. Now Airman hopes to create good examples for other businesses to follow, as polluters also have the potential to be environmental protectors. In the same vein, Airman has organized environmental issues training courses to help raise awareness and stop pollution before it begins.

Since 2017 Airman has expanded its work into other types of programs, including a photography exhibition, cycling activities, and visits to green factories. All of this work is carried out by just two full-time employees, five part-time employees, and about thirty core volunteers.

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