Taiwan Protesters Gear Up to Kibosh Coal

Taiwan Protesters Gear Up to Kibosh Coal
Credit: Morley J Weston

What you need to know

Mass protests are set to bring Taiwan's air pollution issues into sharper focus.

In the same week that saw French president Emmanuel Macron warn that the world is losing the battle against climate change during the “One Planet” summit in Paris, Taiwanese citizens are gearing up to take that battle to the streets.

This weekend, thousands of people are expected to attend rallies in Taichung and Kaohsiung to protest deteriorating air quality.

Demonstrators are asking why politicians in Taipei are so quick to criticize China for blocking Taiwan’s efforts to attend meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but so slow to act on air pollution problems at home.

They feel that an issue that is impossible to ignore in central and southern Taiwan is simply not an issue in Taipei, where DPP legislators spend most of their time.

The event, set to take place on the afternoon of Dec. 17, is organized by NGOs, primarily Air Clean Taiwan (ACT). ACT is led by chairman Dr. Yeh Guang-Perng (葉光芃), a gynecologist with Changhua Christian Hospital, and is mostly comprised of other doctors and medical professionals working at the hospital. 350.org, which campaigns against fossil fuels, assisted with providing materials and organizational support.

A concrete plan for coal?

While the demands of 350 differ slightly from those of ACT, both groups want to highlight the regional disparities in the experience and understanding of the pollution problem. One of their demands is that the Executive Yuan (Taiwan’s Cabinet), Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) and Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), all move their offices to central or south Taiwan so they can experience the air pollution problem personally. A response from the EPA to this demand is still pending at the time of writing.

Regional rivalries aside, the major bone of contention is coal power's impact on health and well-being, discussed here. Protesters are asking for a concrete plan for the reduction of coal burning that emphasizes cuts in central Taiwan and the south over those in the north.

This is a tough ask as Taiwan’s power generation is geographically lopsided, a fact graphically illustrated on a digital map I saw during a visit to Taipower’s Linkou coal power plant as it was being refitted last year. Northern Taiwan handles a small fraction of the island’s power generation requirements, and the company is working against tight deadlines to make sure that three ultra-supercritical 800MW units are ready to go at Linkou before the First Nuclear Power Plant at Jinshan goes offline in 2018.

In this light, it is understandable why Taipower is stalling on requests from Taichung City’s government to cut coal burning at the Taichung Power Plant — notorious as one of the worst emitters in the world and responsible for the majority of Taichung residents’ air pollution woes — by 24 percent because it might endanger the national power supply.

The NGOs suggest it’s time for the Ministry of Economic Affairs to step in and wield its clout.

“We will hold meetings with the EPA and the MOEA,” said Liang-Yi Chang (張良伊), East Asia Campaign Coordinator at 350, “We want a proper plan to reduce coal use.”

To drive the point home, the group plans to corral protesters into forming a human sign exclaiming “No Coal!” in Taichung’s Sunday evening gloaming by holding their lit mobile phone screens up to the sky.

For its part, the government this week proposed amendments to the Air Pollution Control Act (PCA) – the so-called “14+N” plan, where the “N” leaves the door open to more measures in the future, but ACT is far from satisfied.

“We believe the amendments to the Act are a result of the protest we held on Feb. 19, but they focus on economics rather than people’s health,” said Liao Yu-yi (廖育儀), ACT’s secretary.

The amendments promise to halve AQI red alerts, which denote an unhealthy air situation, from 2015 to 2019, according to the Central News Agency. They impose new rules on fuel sources for polluters, and fines up to 20 times higher for violators of air pollution laws, as well as limits the use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in products.

The measures are welcomed but seen as side-stepping the major issue, which for 350 is that hidden subsidies for fossil fuels keep energy costs artificially low. “We want reform of fossil fuel subsidies that impact Formosa Plastics and other big companies, not just Taipower,” Chang said. “We at least want transparency on fossil fuel subsidies so academia and researchers at National Taiwan University can collect data and put forward proposals.”

ACT called for the top 30 stationary sources of pollution in Taiwan to cut their output by 20 percent by the end of 2018, roping in industries and factories ranging from papermaking to steel production.

The protest groups are also urging the EPA to change the way Taiwan AQI map is calculated and displayed, drawing attention to the fact that the headline numbers are a moving average rather than “real-time” ratings.

Political opportunism

This weekend’s protest has the vociferous support of opposition Kuomintang (KMT) legislators eager to push an issue that reflects their Democratic Progressive Party opponents in a bad light.

KMT politicians in Taichung are putting DPP mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) under intense pressure over the climate issue, with legislator Yen Kuan-heng (顏寬恆) proving skilled at social media influencing via the release of a viral video critical of the DPP’s inaction on air quality.

In Taipei, KMT legislator Jason Hsu (許毓仁) followed up with a Dec. 15 press conference that linked air pollution with the issue of attracting and retaining foreign talent in Taiwan. “Air pollution and wind dust not only create health issues but drive residents to move away,” a statement said. “Among those particularly affected are a community of foreigners who have lived in Taiwan for an extended period of time.”

Hsu’s thrust seems opportunistic, but he has a point. It is true that poor air quality can impact decisions over where people choose to live. During my time in Beijing, I experienced the so-called “Airpocalypse” when the AQI maxed out at 500. Those were dark days, and I left the city not long after.

While Taiwan’s pollution is not as cloying or acrid as that in Beijing or Delhi, where cricket players recently vomited onto the field in the middle of a match after inhaling pollution, anyone who has lived here in the last few years will tell you it is getting worse. Whether or not statistics prove this to be so (it would be nice for the EPA to issue some) is largely irrelevant. The fact that people think it to be so should put the government on edge.

There is also historical precedent for change. Activists call attention to the impact direct action had on Taiwan’s waste management regime in the early 90s, now widely considered among the best in the world. Air quality, like waste management, is an issue which transcends social and political divides. We will see whether a similar tipping point has been reached on Sunday.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston