Taiwan’s Climate Change Action on Trial for the First Time

Taiwan’s Climate Change Action on Trial for the First Time
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

Taiwan’s economic ministry has been sued for a new regulation that could cause the country to fall behind the world on climate action.

Taiwan says it wants to do more to contribute to the global fight against climate change, but environmental groups are questioning the government’s resolution in court.

In February, two non-governmental organizations and four citizens filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Economic Affairs, claiming that its action to involve big businesses in the country’s energy transition plan was inadequate, unfair to the general public, and violated existing laws, which set a target for electricity generation from renewable sources. 

A lawyer for the case said the four individual plaintiffs would be the victims of the government’s inaction in addressing a looming climate crisis, which includes rising sea levels that would submerge low-lying areas and displace communities.

In a statement in June, the economic ministry rebutted all the charges, saying that citizens “have no cause of action in the case.” But the NGOs and lawyers have vowed to appeal in the coming months once the suit is dismissed or lost.

Taiwan’s government is facing a referendum that might change the course of its energy policy and the country’s first citizen-led litigation on climate only adds to the challenge of planning for energy sustainability. In December, Taiwanese voters are going to the polls to decide on the reactivation of a controversial nuclear power plant and the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal that would threaten an old algal reef ecosystem.

In January, the Ministry of Economic Affairs put into effect the Regulation for Large Power Consumers, which requires around 300 industrial users, accounting for 35% of Taiwan’s energy consumption, to find a clean source of electricity for 10% of their contracted needs. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Smoke billows over the China Steel production factory in Kaohsiung May 18, 2010. 

The policy is expected to produce 1.05 gigawatts of renewable energy per year by 2025, by the Bureau of Energy’s estimation, but it fails to hold major electricity consumers proportionally responsible for polluting the planet. According to the Renewable Energy Development Act, Taiwan has set a goal to generate 27 gigawatts of renewable energy a year, about 20% of Taiwan’s consumption, by the same deadline.

“These major consumers have used so much of electricity, but they are only obligated to contribute just 1% of the renewable energy required for Taiwan’s energy transition,” said campaigner Tracy Cheng of Greenpeace East Asia, which filed the lawsuit with the Environmental Jurists Association. “This order by the MOEA is not aligned with the goal of the Act, nor does it help Taiwan bring carbon emissions down.”

Similarly, under the regulation, these major electricity users will help Taiwan reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just 0.26% in four years. Currently, the country depends heavily on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs, with coal and natural gas providing 45% and 35% of electricity in 2020, according to statistics by the Bureau of Energy. Less than 6% came from renewable sources.

On Earth Day in April, President Tsai Ing-wen announced that her administration has begun to plan a possible path to reach net zero by 2050, following a number of countries in Europe and Asia, after environmental organizations like Greenpeace criticized it for falling behind the world on climate action.

But on the same day of Tsai’s announcement, officials of the Environment Protection Administration said signing a more ambitious goal into law will not be the “focus” at the moment. The target of net zero emissions would only be included as an “aspiration” in a newly amended law.

Taiwan’s current target, set in 2015, is to cut 20% and 50% emissions by 2030 and 2050, in relation to the level in 2005.

總統:淨零排放國家整體轉型 規劃未來30年願景
Photo Credit: CNA
President Tsai Ing-wen speaks about Taiwan’s goal to reduce carbon emissions at a public forum in Taipei, Taiwan, May 8, 2021.

The decision to push forward the Regulation for Large Power Consumers came as yet another blow to climate action advocates in the country. The Renewable Energy Development Act, which took effect in 2019, authorized the economic ministry to establish the rule to demand that major electricity consumers contribute a certain amount of renewable energy by building renewable energy generating facilities or purchasing from clean energy suppliers. 

It was left to the ministry to define who qualifies as a major consumer in the new regulation. But Cheng of Greenpeace said the result, after two years of negotiations, was a high threshold that let many users off the hook. In 2019, 5,000 users, who consume 53% of Taiwan’s electricity, were on the list, but now, only around 300 remain.

Cheng said there was little transparency in policy talks. “The government always said it will consider everyone’s opinions and the result will be based on all the voices, but it never made public how it communicated with the businesses and provided reasons why the policy came out as it is now.”

Pei-yi Hsieh, deputy secretary-general of the Environmental Jurists Association, said the government is bowing to the pressure from some businesses that intend to shirk their responsibilities for climate change. 

The Chinese National Federation of Industries, the association representing the majority of manufacturing companies in Taiwan, last year cited the economic impact of the pandemic as a reason to postpone the regulation. “If this is not possible, we suggest a ten-year buffer period so that businesses will have sufficient time to respond to the policy,” the organization said in a statement.

At the same time, major actors in Taiwan’s semiconductor, iron and steel, and financial sectors — accountable for 19% greenhouse gas emissions — announced in April in an initiative to work toward net zero by 2050. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Apple’s chip supplier, is committed to 100% renewable electricity by joining the global initiative RE100 last year.

“The level of aggressiveness in cutting emissions varies among companies,” Hsieh said. “We are worried if the government forms the policy by catering to conservative businesses, Taiwan will not be able to keep up with the world.”

To preserve their role in the global supply chain, export-heavy businesses tend to be more proactive in reducing carbon footprint than others relying on domestic demand, Cheng explained. “But for Taiwan’s energy transformation, everyone has to cooperate.”

2020能源願景高峰論壇 綠色和平表立場
Photo Credit: CNA
A member of Greenpeace holds a banner reading “regulate major electricity users” as Wang Mei-hua, Minister of Economic Affairs speaks at a summit on energy transition in Taipei, Taiwan, November 11, 2020.

The central government plays a key role in combating climate change by setting rules about environmental pollution, according to Chien Kai-lun, a Taipei lawyer for the case. But this begs the question of what action citizens could take if it fails to live up to the expectations.

Lawyers on the case believe the four individual plaintiffs, living in regions prone to flooding and storm surges, including the capital, are entitled to the right to sue the government for not being ambitious enough on climate policy. 

According to a report by Greenpeace, 12% of Taiwan’s population, or 2.8 million, will be affected by the increased frequency of coastal flooding by 2050 in the absence of mitigation efforts.

“This is a matter of environmental justice,” Chien said. “If you’re a major electricity user, who produces more carbon dioxide than most others, and you don’t do your part in reducing emissions, it is the society that has to bear all the burden.”

In Germany, a landmark lawsuit in the constitutional court parallels the Taiwan case, Hsieh of the Environmental Jurists Association pointed out. The top court ruled that the current climate law violated fundamental freedoms by leaving a disproportionate burden of curbing carbon emissions on the future generations, and required that the federal government update the legislation to include plans to reach net zero by 2050.

Hsieh believes the onus is on Taiwan’s administrative court to “remind” the government of what responsibilities it needs to take, despite the lack of precedent for climate change litigation. “The court should allow civil society groups and citizens who have questions about a policy to debate with the government and discuss if it is effective in responding to the crisis,” she said.

Scanty rainfall and a typhoon-less year has plunged Taiwan into the worst drought in more than half a century, with water levels in several reservoirs hitting rock bottom. Water supply had been suspended for two days each week in central Taiwan for more than two months until early June. But in the same month, a heavy downpour brought by a plum rain also caused severe flooding across Taipei in a day, paralyzing traffic on a number of main roads.

“Climate change does not happen on paper anymore,” Hsieh said.

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Jon Hum (@thenewslensintl)

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