Beyond 2020: Taiwan Needs to Take Climate Chaos Seriously

Beyond 2020: Taiwan Needs to Take Climate Chaos Seriously
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

Whoever wins January’s election will have to effectively manage the global, indiscriminate forces of climate chaos.

Scientists have recently revealed that the planet may already have exceeded a series of climate tipping points, ominous news for small island nations that are particularly susceptible to drastic weather changes. 

Extreme weather is taking its toll on Taiwan, whose urban areas over the past century have experienced double the global average temperature rise. Rising sea levels could submerge one-third of Greater Taipei within two generations. Typhoons are becoming increasingly frequent and intense, devastating vulnerable communities in southern Taiwan.

In 2018, Taiwan already saw a reduced output of lychees, longans, and persimmons, as well as unreliable honey harvests. Coastal development is eroding millennia-old coral reefs, hampering the tourism industry. A blast of cold current in December of this year killed 29 people in the Taipei metropolitan area in just a few days. 

花蓮鳳林西瓜爛一片 農政單位將實地現勘(2)
Photo Credit: CNA
Farmfields in Hualien are increasingly prone to damages from climate change. 

Only swift adaptive measures and serious political concern for climate threats over the next few years will keep the island’s head above water. The upcoming elections in January offer an opportunity for Taiwan to tackle these threats with urgency.

However, Taiwan’s current energy policy is exacerbating environmental problems. 98 percent of Taiwan's fossil fuel energy comes from foreign imports, one of the country’s major foreign expenditures (about NT$1.5 trillion annually). Fossil fuels make up approximately three-quarters of Taiwan’s power generation. 

“Harnessing its unique geography (windy, sunny, and geothermal) and technical capacity, Taiwan could be a leader in the renewable energy revolution,” says Kao Cheng-yan (高成炎), founding chairman of the Green Party Taiwan (GPT). 

The two main political parties’ energy policies are hardly electrifying. On an energy policy evaluation score developed by National Dong Hwa University, the Kuomintang (KMT) scored zero, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) scored a paltry 50, resulting from its inability to curb energy demand or implement a carbon tax.

Taiwan’s environmental movements have played a major part in civil society and its recent transition to democracy. Before its first democratic elections in 1996, Taiwan was an environmental wasteland. In that year, per capita emissions were at 8.4 tonnes, and plateaued at about 11 tonnes at the turn of the millennium. Years of colonial exploitation followed by rampant extractive industrial development under the authoritarian KMT government meant that pollution was unfettered until the late ‘80s. While Taiwan’s economy was reliant on energy-intensive industries, urban sprawl and agriculture caused forest coverage to fall from 90 to 55 percent. 

The DPP first sailed into power in 2000 largely on a strong pro-environment, anti-nuclear campaign. Its environmental track record has been positive but insufficient to tackle the challenges ahead. The DPP listened to the demands of environmental groups and pledged to decommission all nuclear power plants by 2025 and invest in renewables. Thanks to DPP reforms, coal consumption fell below 13 million tons this year, a drop of more than 5 million tons. In the past two years, total solar photovoltaic installations in Taiwan have increased by nearly 140 percent, but renewable energy generation has reached only 75 percent of the 2017 target.

Photo Credit: CNA
Environmental groups perform during the Fridays for Future global climate strike on September 25, 2019. 

In stark contrast, KMT has demonstrated virtually zero environmental concern besides criticizing the incumbent for air pollution (much of which is released by coal plants that were set up under KMT governments). Contradicting the DPP’s nuclear-free homeland policy, KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) has declared his controversial intentions to expand nuclear power on the island and complete the much-despised fourth plant. Some argue the proposal stemmed from the investment interests of the KMT’s business-heavy support base rather than from scientific concerns. 

As such, the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU) has discouraged voters from supporting Han. TEPU also argues that the cost of the DPP's policy of developing renewable energies is less expensive to the taxpayer than advancing nuclear. Despite only accounting for 8 percent of Taiwan’s power generation, nuclear has long been a point of contention. Kao argues “while nuclear may be a viable green energy source for larger countries, it is too unwieldy and risky for a seismic small island nation.” The Fukushima disaster is still fresh in the Taiwanese consciousness. 

However, Dr. Yang Zhi-yuan (楊之遠), professor and director of the Department of Land Resources at the Chinese Culture University, supports the idea that nuclear provides countries with a clean source of power while renewables are being developed. However, he adds that the current DPP administration has spent far too much money on renewables, without tangible results.

“Neither party has spoken clearly on adaptation measures for Taiwan,” Dr. Yang told The News Lens. “While waste management, air pollution, and water pollution are major areas of public concern, less tangible issues such as water depletion, resilience to extreme weather, and biodiversity loss are not being addressed.”

Whoever wins January’s election will have to effectively manage the global, indiscriminate forces of climate chaos. 

Environmental groups and agricultural workers have expressed disillusion with the Tsai administration for losing focus on the issue in favor of bureaucracy and political gain. In November, environmental groups protested against the government’s delay in dealing with controversial amendments to a mining law. Taiwan’s anti-nuclear Environmental Protection Alliance (TEPA) also recently stated its disappointment over the absence of environmental legislators on the DPP party list for the 2020 elections. 

Whoever wins January’s election will have to effectively manage the indiscriminate forces of climate chaos in Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the New Power Party (NPP) nominated veteran environmental activist Chen Chiao-hua (陳椒華) at the top of its part list, hoping to gain over 11 percent of the vote. She says that “both the main party candidates will continue pursuing business development opportunities at the detriment of the environment.”

“Parties like the GPT and the NPP are important megaphones for the people’s voice, but if the people do not care, politicians will not care either,” Dr. Yang said.

A DPP presidential win may not drastically advance Taiwan’s environmental protection. However, in a two-party election, it may be the lesser evil. Supporters of the DPP say that environmental groups could put Taiwan at further risk by jeopardizing the party’s chances of success. 

Yang posits that “environmental groups are necessary to hold the government accountable, but the DPP’s failings lie in its inability to foster better economic relations with China, which could bolster Taiwan’s renewable energy development and adaptive capacity.” But since a DPP majority is less certain in legislative elections, the party may have to go into coalition with smaller environmental parties and demonstrate a real commitment to the cause. 

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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