Over the course of Taiwan’s presidential election campaign, environmental policy, like many other issues, has struggled to take center stage ahead of meta- discussion of electoral tactics. A recent poll by CommonWealth Magazine found that of the three parties whose presidential candidates have a realistic chance of becoming president, only Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) supporters place energy policy above national security in a list of priorities, and this has been reflected in the presidential candidates’ lack of emphasis on the issue. The candidates’ most high-profile disagreement focuses on whether or not Taiwan should use nuclear energy, whereas other broad Net Zero commitments have failed to seriously address existing barriers to a green transition.
The reality is that a gloomy environmental picture isn’t being matched by the political debate. The current government expects Taiwan to get 15.1% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, which means missing the 20% target it set for itself in 2016. Taiwan’s carbon emissions per person rank above most European countries and neighbors such as Japan or Singapore, but a significant chunk of those emissions contribute to the exports that form a key pillar of its economy. Worse still, “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 and political costs than in other places. All of these difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that this small island is home to 23 million people, which makes finding the space for renewable energy infrastructure a difficult task.
This situation hasn’t only thrived on disinterest. As the land issue alludes to, “green on green” battles between conservation groups and green energy developers are a prominent feature of local politics in Taiwan. At the other end of the spectrum, several studies 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. And the list doesn’t end there. A report from last year pointed the finger at Taiwan’s history as a developmental state, prioritizing economic development over environmental and labor concerns, as well as partisan splits between the two largest political parties. The co-author of that report, John Chung-En Liu (劉仲恩), told Domino Theory that pressure from powerful business associations had slowed down the introduction of a carbon tax and decreased its likely rate. Green Party candidate Zoe Lee (李菁琪) told us how relations with China continually absorb political energy that is necessary to addressing climate issues.
Many of these issues are understandably sticky. But Taiwan is reaching an inflection point during this election campaign, and it’s going virtually unacknowledged. Scientists are telling the world that Earth is “well outside safe operating space for humanity” regarding carbon emissions, but this barely features in Taiwan’s top-level political debate.
A stark illustration of exactly how much pessimism is around comes from Alicia Garcia-Herrero, a senior fellow at European think tank Bruegel. Garcia-Herrero is co-author of a policy brief released last week which outlines a plan for a green tech partnership between “incentive-aligned governments and businesses” outside of China. The proposed partnership would supplement — rather than substitute outright — the substantial Chinese green tech supply chain. The U.S. and the EU would share technology and provide financing to emerging economies that are rich in raw materials, to the decarbonizing benefit of all — even China, who “would have more room to use its clean tech to meet its own decarbonisation targets.” This sounds like it might suit Taiwan, as Taiwan actually already doesn’t allow the import of Chinese solar or wind equipment — and says it checks closely whether solar materials from elsewhere actually originated in China. But the extent to which Taiwan has struggled to gain any momentum in its green transition means Garcia-Herrero doesn’t see much room for optimism even here.
“It is clear that Taiwan should take derisking [from China] more seriously because of its very obvious dependence on the mainland. Even if it has a current account surplus, the fact that 40% of its exports go to the mainland does show that Taiwan is very dependent on the mainland in terms of its growth through exports,” she says via voice message. “[But] is [derisking for Taiwan] about sourcing of green tech like in the case of Europe? Not at all.” Why not? First, because to de-risk it would need to get into a partnership and it might be hard to find one. And second, it is hard to de-risk because Taiwan is “simply not ‘into’ green.” It is “Taiwan’s own decision to be simply late with its own green transition.”
In other words, it’s not derisking from China that is currently holding Taiwan back from decarbonization. It’s internal difficulties that won’t disappear with access to or involvement in proposed new supply chains. Garcia-Herrero acknowledges that limited land makes green transition difficult in Taiwan, but she ultimately characterizes its efforts thus far as “quite disappointing.” She believes even its carbon pricing scheme, announced earlier this year, is mainly in place as a defensive reaction to avoid paying tariffs under the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), designed to charge companies outside of the EU for the carbon they emit. (This view is shared by Josh Burke, who wrote the initial report on the subject for Taiwan’s government.)
With two months left until its election, then, is there any room for this to change? Or at least, is there any room to discuss a change, between all the discussion of electoral tactics? We’ll see. But despite the air pollution, it’s probably best not to hold your breath.
Photo: Pichi Chuang/AFP