Taiwan exists as an “extreme case” when it comes to efforts to mitigate climate change, according to a new report looking into the country’s climate change politics. The report, published in the WIREs Climate Change journal, reviewed climate change mitigation literature on Taiwan at three different levels — global, national and local — and identified key dynamics and challenges within each, operating from the starting point that Taiwan’s climate actions are often “off climate observers’ radar” and are difficult to access because of its lack of formal international recognition.
Setting out Taiwan’s climate impact as things stand, the report outlines that for the year 2020 it was emitting around 12 tons of carbon per person, which sees it rank above most European countries and neighbors such as Japan or Singapore. The majority of these emission levels were reached after 1990, with emissions increasing from 114 million tons in 1990 to 263 million tons in 2020, according to Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration statistics. Total greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2007, but have declined only slightly since then.
The report then notes a key structural problem within those figures.
The main driver behind emissions is the industrial sector, which makes by far the largest contribution to total emissions, accounting for 49% of the total when emissions are allocated to the areas where they are used rather than produced. The next largest sector, building, is far behind, at 22%. As one might expect from that, these emissions are heavily tied to exports, with 48% of total emissions found to be linked to exports in the last OECD assessment, in 2015 — far higher than the likes of South Korea (35%) or China (20%). They are, then, a key plank in Taiwan’s export-oriented economy. Doubling down on that potential difficulty, the report notes “difficult-to-abate sectors,” such as steel, cement, petrochemical, and heavy road transport contribute 40% of Taiwan’s CO2 emissions, so decarbonization likely comes with higher financial costs than in other places.
Analyzing how this situation has come about through a “global” lens, the report highlights several studies that suggest Taiwan’s climate policy may have been affected by being kept out of international systems, such as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Overall, Taiwan’s response is characterized as passively fulfilling minimum requirements within agreements it is not obliged to follow rather than showing much political ambition. It’s noted, for instance, that Taiwan’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act, which legally mandates a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2050, was drafted in 2006 but only came into force in 2015.
Looking through a “national” lens, the report highlights the well-known split among Taiwan’s top two political parties over backing nuclear energy versus solar and wind. However, it also focuses on Taiwan’s legacy after World War II as a developmental state, one in which the government is actively involved in economic planning. Prioritizing economic development over environmental and labor concerns, Taiwan’s state maintains low energy prices and uses other fossil fuel subsidies to foster industrial development, notably enhancing the carbon-intensive petro-chemical sector. Emerging from these policies, the report notes emissions of Taiwan’s 10 largest companies, including Formosa Petrochemical Corporation, state-owned China Steel Company and TSMC, made up 40% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Now, powerful companies and organizations within those industries are well-placed to fight to maintain their positions.
Finally, looking at the “local” level, and how Taiwan’s civil society shapes its climate policy, struggles with “green-green conflicts” are identified as one key issue. With one of the highest population densities in the world, Taiwan’s land use is hotly contested. This has seen local protests against renewable infrastructure projects on conservation grounds, but also competition for land with agriculture, aquaculture and forest plantations.
Various kinds of solutions are highlighted as being underway, including a carbon levy and a $30 billion climate investment for decarbonization in this decade, under the Climate Change Response Act (氣候變遷因應法) passed on January 10 this year. An emissions trading scheme is also planned but has not been implemented.
The report notes that there is a general lack of urgency around climate mitigation, and points out that in some ways business has responded more proactively than state legislation (albeit there are well-known and significant criticisms of the terms on which this is done). Additionally, it highlights one study from last year in the Journal of Taiwan Energy which suggested technical and economic perspectives dominate existing research, while topics such as social dimensions, architecture, built environment and ecosystems still “need to be addressed.”
The report itself echoes this in a call for research to clarify how various forms of inequality intersect with the Taiwan government’s policy of achieving a “just transition” away from fossil fuels. The point being: Climate change and climate change mitigation have different impacts on different groups of people, in Taiwan as in anywhere else, and this should be reflected in climate research, discussion and policy.