Taiwan is changing to face energy and environmental issues


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By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asia Weekly

Wind turbines and solar panels in Taiwan (Photo by Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

After promising to shut down its four nuclear power plants by 2025, Taiwan is in the process of transforming its energy supply into more renewable sources. But the transition is fraught with pitfalls.

The first is the extent of the island’s dependence on nuclear power.

Managing Director Alex Kuo-shu Fan

“Nuclear power represents 17% of our energy,” said Alex Fan, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Seattle.

“Where can we get this from?” he said.

In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen pledged to shut down the island’s three active nuclear power plants, most of which are nearing the end of their lifespan. She also promised not to open a fourth which is not yet finished.

Fan said opposition to nuclear power stems from fears that earthquakes could inflict catastrophic damage, as happened in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Taiwan is prone to earthquakes, a he declared. In the long term, Taiwan is switching to wind turbines and solar panels to compensate, and ultimately predicts that 20% of its electricity will come from these sources.

On November 19, Tsai inaugurated Taiwan’s first offshore wind power plant. She presented it as part of a larger agenda to make Taiwan the “green energy center of Asia”.

“Taiwan must not let business opportunities, technologies and jobs in the green energy sector escape to other countries,” she said at a press conference.

But even with the new plant, the island will not have enough wind and solar power to replace the 17% of total energy lost by nuclear power plants. Thus, in the short term, the government plans to increase the use of liquid natural gas (LNG).

“But we have to have tanks to store it, and at the moment we don’t have enough facilities,” Fan said. Yet another challenge is the precariousness of obtaining only LNG.

“What if one day you can’t buy it?” Fan asked. Ninety-nine percent of Taiwan’s energy is imported, he said.

“Business and industry need a stable supply,” he said. “We need trade treaties, we have to think about the international situation. “

The long-term goal is to increase the use of natural gas to 50% of the island’s total energy supply while increasing wind and solar to 20%. Meanwhile, Tsai’s administration plans to reduce the use of coal, which accounts for over 50% of the island’s power, to less than 30%.

Global issues and challenges

Taiwan is largely excluded from international political and strategic organizations, hampering its ability to contribute to global environmental, health and safety issues, Fan said.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, so it is pressuring other countries to prevent it from participating in the World Health Organization (WHO), for example.

But Taiwan is closely linked to the rest of the world economically, and such exclusion is dangerous, for example during the coronavirus epidemic, Fan said.

There are 10 weekly flights between Taipei and Seattle. That will drop to 12 in May, he said. Without coordination through WHO, prevention and follow-up become more difficult, he added. Yet Taiwan is committed to following the conventions of international health and safety organizations.

Although the island is excluded from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Tsai has promised to meet greenhouse gas emission standards.

By 2050, emissions will be reduced to 50% of 2005 levels, Fan said.

“Taiwan cannot be a member, but still has the desire to be a member of the global village,” he said.

Taiwan is also excluded from Interpol, Fan said, which could reduce its ability to help in the fight against terrorism. Taiwan also does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

“Nonetheless, if you commit a crime, we will find a way to fire you,” he said.

Island transformation

Researchers debate the combination of economic change and democratization that has brought about environmental changes in Taiwan. But the transformation of the island over the past decades is indisputable.

“My 1991 newspaper called Taiwan a ‘garbage island’: the air was horrible and the food was loaded with pesticides. Today the streets are clean, the air is cleaner and the environmental movement is active everywhere and is a major factor in national and local politics, ”wrote Stevan Harrell, University of Washington anthropologist and leader in the study of environmental changes in East Asia. , in a forthcoming book.

Taiwan’s air has improved due to “increasingly stringent regulations and, in some cases, economic incentives,” Harrell wrote. But ozone pollution from vehicle exhaust remains a problem.

Since the democratic reforms of the 1990s, Taiwan has struggled with its traffic problem, including tens of millions of scooters clogging the streets and throwing clouds of noxious blue smoke.

In recent years, a Taiwanese company has started manufacturing electric scooters. But that hasn’t had a major impact yet, Harrell wrote.

As Taiwan got richer in the 1960s and 1970s and eventually developed democracy, the government planted more trees, although the island was never severely deforested, as were other parts of the country. ‘Asia, especially China.

In 1976, forest covered 50.8% of the island compared to 60.9% in 2012, according to Harrell. The numbers also reflected a shift to fossil fuels rather than burning biomass for fuel, he wrote.

Soil restoration, as in other parts of Asia, was much more difficult to implement.

Industrialization and rapid economic development have left areas of the island polluted with heavy metals and garbage.

In 2002, the government began formally cleaning up the polluted sites, but progress has been slow. Part of this is the result of protests and activism.

Since the 1980s, as part of a pro-democracy movement, environmental activists have put pressure on the government.

Today, the environmental movement has turned professional and includes full-time staff, members of the urban middle class, teachers, students, fishermen and natives.

In one of Taiwan’s historically most polluted cities, Kaohsiung, life expectancy is 4.3 years shorter than in the capital, Taipei, according to a recent study.

Ongoing protests against industrial development have forced the government to close industrial factories. And recently, school children and teachers monitored emissions from a nearby cement plant, sharing their data with the public.

Meanwhile, academics have joined public television to examine attitudes toward environmental waste among Indigenous peoples. A researcher found that indigenous peoples on neighboring Lanyu Island, where nuclear waste has been stored for decades, opposed the deposit. But another native tribe on the southeastern coast of Taiwan was less opposed to a planned deposition because the authority of their elders had been destroyed and replaced with loyalty to the state.

An immediate problem

Such heightened concern is emblematic of the state of mind of a growing number of Taiwanese.

A poll last year found the environment is now the number one concern for most islanders, even above income, said Shu-hui Shih, deputy director of TECO in Seattle.

This is partly due to the proximity to China. Taiwan is about 100 miles from its coast and is sometimes inundated by Chinese air pollution, she said.

Meanwhile, due to climate change, typhoons, which once regularly slammed the island and provided needed rainwater, have diminished in recent years. These are reminders, for many, that environmental safety is not only an issue for the future.

“This is a problem that Taiwan is facing right now,” Shih said.

Mahlon can be contacted at [email protected]

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