The idea that authoritarian governance holds an advantage in pushing forward with some elements of a “green transition” can be enticing. China, for instance, controls around 80 percent of the worldwide value chain for solar panels. It installed almost three times the volume of solar capacity between January and the end of April than in the same period in 2022. And it is on track to add more panels this year than the entire total in the U.S. But the answer to those frustrated by “the inaction and the messy fights among government bodies and interest groups” in democracies is more democracy, not less, according to speakers at Taiwan Sustainability Hub’s international forum this week.
“The timing [of a green transition] is not something we can put up for discussion,” said Ortwin Renn, former professor for environment and technology assessment at the University of Stuttgart. “We can’t negotiate with nature,” but this doesn’t mean cutting people out of decisions works, because “not resolving [conflicts] will even take more time.”
Renn’s point is that when politicians or government officials set out to avoid consultation with the rest of the population, in the end building out renewable energy capacity takes longer, because local residents will fight back or unintended consequences will result in new problems that require fixing — like fuel poverty or other forms of economic degradation. Ultimately this means that genuine consultation and involvement for the public correlates with greater long term success for green projects.
This discussion resonates in Taiwan right now because it’s been struggling with so-called “green-on-green battles.” In a rush toward a green transition led by the current government, conservation and community groups have fought with green energy developers over squeezed space, leading to a situation where “renewable energy policy and spatial planning issues are one of the most critical issues in Taiwan in terms of the energy transition, net zero transition and sustainability,” according to An-Ting Cheng (鄭安廷), a professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
The specifics of the situation are that since taking power in 2016, Taiwan’s government has set a target of 20 gigawatts of solar capacity and 5.6 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2025. Other governments have achieved such a goal in 20 to 30 years and Cheng says this means it is “not so surprising [that] much conflict happened during this [time],” on top of other issues such as legal systems not matching up between different sectors and sustainability research not yet having been performed.
Into this conflict, a deepening of democratic engagement could take various shapes, but the key requirement Taiwan can take on from elsewhere is offering a sense of control and ownership to local people.
Ortin Renn suggests that what has been successful in Germany is so-called “benefit sharing.” Under this system, residents become co-owners in the local renewable energy development by very cheaply being able to buy stocks. “It’s not the money, it’s that you’re now owning the facility” which has “changed the game,” Renn explains. Once people feel a sense of ownership, there’s a lot of good evidence that public opposition considerably decreased, he says.
Cheng agrees with this view and notes that it addresses a problem that has been present in Taiwan. “Our government has tried to offer not only money but also social support to farmers and fishers. But we have encountered an issue,” he says. “The owner and the user [of area assigned for renewable projects] are different.” The owners have been happy — subsidies provide them revenue without having to work — but “users” whose jobs may have been affected by the change in land use have been left to fight against projects.
Jo-Ting Huang-Lachmann, a junior research group leader at the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, offers a similar appraisal of both issue and solution. She says that in Germany sites of renewable energy developments that “received some kind of top-down policy” tend to have the most conflicts. Farmers told their empty land will have solar panels placed on it question why government buildings don’t receive the same treatment, for instance. But, she says, people were happy to support projects if they were able to be a “shareholder” in it. This can refer to people who own the land directly being treated as shareholders, or it can see more creative efforts like eco-tourism. Tourists pay 5 euros to hire local citizens to be a tour guide around the renewable development. This way, citizens who don’t own the land still have job opportunities and relationships with the projects.
From here, a final two suggestions from Renn also stand out as interesting democratic avenues to be explored further in Taiwan. First, he relays that in Germany contracting has been a good system for getting middle class and lower income people to allow their roofs to be used for solar panels. Citizens effectively rent out their roofs to developers who place the panels on them, and are paid with “a specific percentage of the revenues,” he explains.
Second, and perhaps most interestingly, he highlights the case of citizens’ assemblies as a method of helping people accept compromise. In Germany, these assemblies run before a licensing inquiry for a renewable development, asking randomly selected citizens to look through plans and make modifications. Then, when the inquiry comes up, the citizens sit at the front of the room, not the experts and not the regulators. “So the neighbors [are] sitting up there, and that made a big difference [to other local citizens accepting the decisions of the inquiry], because you’re not throwing eggs at your neighbor.”
Of course, there are those in Taiwan who are not thinking along these lines at all. This writer went along to a meeting of wind farm developers earlier this month and found them discussing, among other things, reducing the area around wind farms where local residents have to be consulted on the project. But the takeaway from elsewhere is that if Taiwan actually wants a fast green energy transition that sticks, then giving locals co-ownership over the process is key to helping them accept compromise.