Environmental Concerns in Taiwan’s 2020 National Elections: From Green to Red

Written by Simona Grano.

Image credit: Air pollution in Taiwan by 君勇 林/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

In June 2019 a series of demonstrations in Hong Kong were triggered by the Hong Kong government’s proposal to pass an Extradition Bill, which would allow the Special Administrative Region to send fugitives to jurisdictions with which it had no extradition agreements, including mainland China. The ongoing protests have been credited by some commentators as having altered the dynamics of Taiwan’s 2020 election.

In the midst of such important and attention-grabbing events, one has to wonder whether environmental issues (among several other domestic concerns) still feature as important topics in the 2020 national election platforms of any party or candidate in Taiwan.

As a reminder of the current situation, we should not forget that in November 2018 the Tsai Ing-wen government suffered a setback to its anti-nuclear policy when local elections were coupled with several referenda on various matters. One of these referenda saw a pro-nuclear alliance victorious as voters rejected the government’s plan to phase out nuclear power. 59% voted in favour of keeping nuclear energy and 41% voted against. Specifically, voters agreed to remove legal provisions set by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government mandating that Taiwan be nuclear-free by 2025. Despite the result of the referenda, the Tsai government stated that it would proceed with its plan to phase out the use of nuclear energy, which in 2016 provided some 14% of Taiwan’s electricity. Initially, pro-nuclear advocates replied that they would attempt to push for three more referenda. The first would call for the extension of operating permits for the four nuclear reactors, which were originally set to expire between 2021 and 2025. These referred to the two reactors at the Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City and at the Ma-anshan Nuclear Power Plant in Pingtung County. The second referendum would be about resuming work on the Gongliao Nuclear Power Plant no. 4 in order to make it operational – a controversial plan even among pro-nuclear supporters because of its prolonged and chaotic construction spanning over two decades. The third pro-nuclear referendum would be on the current storage of nuclear waste materials on Orchid Island. To date these referenda have yet to take place.

In terms of energy provision, the Tsai administration has consistently pursued a green agenda by attempting to diminish Tawian’s reliance on nuclear energy while increasing its share of renewable sources. During the first four years of her tenure, the legal framework for improving air pollution and environmental assessment procedures has been established and some concrete achievements have been reached in terms of implementing new sets of regulation for both air pollution as well as the transformation of the Environmental Impact Assessment system. Nuclear energy is a much more complicated matter which traditionally has epitomised an ideology-laden issue opposed by the DPP and supported by the Kuomintang (KMT). Thus, who will win the elections in January will have important repercussions on the continuation of the usage of nuclear energy in the current energy mix and in the extension of the shelf life of soon-to-be expired reactors. This point is especially poignant in light of enthusiastic comments in favour of nuclear energy by KMT candidate Han Kuo-Yu.

Energy provision and environmental issues have faded into the background since the beginning of the Hong Kong protests in June 2019. Candidates and parties have focused on new ways to deal with the ‘China Threat’, such as the DPP’s recent proposal to pass an anti-infiltration bill and the KMT’s counter-proposal of an anti-annexation act. According to a Greenpeace survey on the three main presidential candidates’ energy policies, none had presented any concrete plan to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, nor had they set in motion any policy following the recommendations of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from the 2015 Paris Agreement. Greenpeace believes that Tsai Ing-Wen, Han Kuo-Yu and James Soong all lack a sound long-term strategy to reduce global warming and to increase renewable energies, even though Tsai (with 44 points out of 100) fared better than Han (21 points out of 100) on the survey.

According to Chen Man Li, former president of the Homemakers United Foundation Association and DPP Legislator in charge of environmental protection issues, despite bigger questions currently being scrutinised by the majority of Taiwanese, there still are several candidates across different parties (especially in the pan-green camp) devoting their attention to environmental issues. This is especially true among candidates running for local district posts, as these are more devoted to issues that are important for the public, some of which are related to the environment.

In Chen’s opinion, three legislative candidates stand out: Hung Shen Han 洪申翰, who is the tenth seat on the DPP Party list and also Deputy Secretary-General of the Green Citizens Action Alliance; Chen Jiao-Hua 陳椒華 of the New Power Party (時代力量); and Gao Cheng-Yan 高成炎 of the Green Party Taiwan. These three are all heavy weights in the environmental sphere. However, it is by now clear that these elections will predominantly focus on issues that are perceived to be threatening to Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty, and not on environmental issues.

Taiwan’s 2020 elections will also be a referendum on how the ruling and opposition parties are faring at a time of generational change, as the first cohort of Taiwanese born in a fully democratic (post-1996) Taiwan become eligible to vote. As environmental concerns are usually more important for younger voters, this demographic change could represent a positive turn for environmental protection. But the extraordinary circumstances of what is happening in Hong Kong, with students and citizens locked in a sustained and now six-months-long clash with the government, are enough to make green concerns turn bright red. Environmental issues are becoming, at least temporarily, forgotten in the midst of more pressing issues.

Simona A. Grano is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sinology at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. Her research interests focus on environmental management and politics, state-society relations, and judicial sector reforms.

From December 16th 2019 till January 6th 2020, researchers from the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and Taiwan Studies Program (TSP) present a joint special issue on the forthcoming presidential election that will be held on January 11th 2020.

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