Written by Huang-Hsiung Hsu.
Image credit: Typhoon Noul by GPA Photo Archive/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0
Taiwan is currently suffering a severe drought. Water use restriction on agriculture, livelihood, and industry has been mounting since autumn 2020. No landfalling typhoons (except a minor one passing through the Luzon Strait in early November 2020 that brought very little precipitation) for the first time in 56 years led to our low water level in major reservoirs. These dry conditions were compounded by the following spring rainfall failure in 2021 (likely caused by the prevailing La Niña) that worsened the drought impacts. Nevertheless, a drought that usually lasted for few months was not uncommon in Taiwan and seemed to occur more frequently in recent decades. More in-depth research is needed to tell what degree the current drought—which began simultaneously with the China flood and Siberian heatwave in 2020—can be attributed to anthropogenic global warming.
Studies on Taiwan’s climate change suggested fewer but stronger typhoons, drier spring, fewer rainy days, and stronger precipitation in the future. This is in addition to the expected significant temperature rise and severe heat waves around the world. Fewer rain days and stronger precipitation strength mean a higher risk of both water shortage and natural disasters such as flooding and landslide. The current drought is a good lesson and a revelation for Taiwanese to foresee how much worse the situation might be in the foreseeable future. Studies also indicated less impact with less accumulated greenhouse gases, meaning that there is an option for us in Taiwan (and everywhere worldwide) to choose a better pathway to create a less harmful environment for future generations. The 2050 net-zero (or carbon neutral) goal—which has been advocated since the Paris Agreement’s announcement in 2015 and quickly adopted by more governments in the past two years—is the best possible pathway for a chance to bring global warming below 1.5ºC and minimize its global impacts.
Facing global warming, Taiwan – including both government and people -has not yet awakened to the tremendous impacts it might bring and the necessity to take action. Relatively limited efforts have been made considering the unprecedented scale of potential impacts. There seem to be several reasons for this “too late, too little, too shallow” reaction. First, climate-related disasters seemed to have impacted Taiwan less than other places around the world. (Note: the severe Typhoon Morakot event in 2009 was a weather event, not a climate-related event, and its association with global warming was not proven.) For example, the short-period drought that occurred every few years were easily forgotten once the drought was over following a significant rain event in Mei-yu (May-June) or typhoon (July-September) season. Second, Taiwan is an economics-driven country that heavily relies on international trade. The priority of environmental issues has been placed behind economic growth incentive. Third, Taiwan has been excluded from intergovernmental activities since 1971, when its representative status in the United Nations was transferred to the People’s Republic of China. Thus, Taiwanese government officials have been barred from attending the UNFCCC COP meetings. Participation is, therefore, only possible through NGOs. Lack of exposures to the COP activity likely led to low sensitivity and awareness from high-ranking government officials (e.g., ministers, prime ministers, vice president, and president) to pressing climate change issues. Lastly, the seemingly massive impact on existing industries is considered an unbearable cost and, therefore, results in the wait-and-see mentality. Interestingly, the unusually high public awareness in Taiwan compared to other countries has been reported in many studies. However, this high awareness, which may merely reflect media impression, has not been transformed into political pressure.
Nevertheless, the tide is turning. There has been more discussion about Taiwan’s carbon-neutral goal in the political arena since the beginning of the year. Ironically, a significant force for this change seems to be international politics and trade pressure. Along with an announcement about the net-zero goal by the European Union, UK, Japan, South Korea, China, and most importantly, the Biden’s administration, political pressure is mounting on Taiwan. Besides, major Taiwanese companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor announced their commitment to 100% use of green energy. They joined groups – such as RE100 – in response to a request from their significant customers, such as Apple. The Task Force’s recommendation on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) also pressured Taiwanese corporates to evaluate and disclose their climate-related risks and opportunities. Calls for help from Taiwanese corporates have been increasing in response to the TCFD recommendation. Increasing numbers of countries are announcing – or are considering – carbon tariffs on imported goods. Reducing carbon footprint as much as possible has become a requirement for export-oriented Taiwanese corporates and Taiwan as a whole.
The threat of global warming Taiwan faces is more than just from climate change impacts, but more importantly and ironically, from international politics and trade. In the long term, Taiwan faces more than just the threat of global warming; it also faces threats from that which it has to rely on in the short term. Namely, international politics and trade. Taiwan has been doing an excellent job in quickly responding to the pandemic and natural disasters, thanks to the Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Act and the Disaster Prevention and Response Act. These two acts were quickly drafted and passed after the SARS pandemic in 2003 and the 921 Jiji earthquake in 1999 after suffering from the massive loss of human life and property. This pre-emptive measure has been the key to success in dealing with such disasters in Taiwan. Anthropogenic warming impacts are of much longer duration and larger scales, and therefore these pre-emptive measures for adaptation and mitigation are especially needed. Taking the COVID-19 as an analogue, January– February 2020 was the warning period of the pandemic. Taiwan anticipated devastating impacts by swiftly taking necessary measures. It thus effectively minimized the infectious rate. In contrast, the pandemic was not seriously treated in many countries from the outset, resulting in a historical runaway, global disaster.
The primary emission control law in Taiwan is the Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act passed in 2015. The goal is a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (relative to the 2010 level) by 2050, equivalent to about 5.6-tonne carbon emission per capita, far from the net-zero goal. As suggested by many experts, the next ten years is critical for mitigating runaway anthropogenic global warming. Time is running out. Therefore, the Taiwanese government should carry on in the spirit of dealing with the pandemic and natural disasters by declaring a net-zero goal by 2050. It can do this by passing a climate change act (as in UK and EU) for regulating and implementing all necessary measures. A holistic approach needs to be taken to fully cover climate change science research, impact assessment, adaptation, social justice, and mitigation to minimize the impact of climate change, along with those from international politics and trade. We are lagging and need to take prompt action to accelerate, deepen, and broaden our efforts to secure a better future.
Huang-Hsiung Hsu is Distinguished Research Fellow and Chief Executive Officer Anthropogenic Climate Change Center, Research Center for Environmental Changes, Academia Sinica, Taiwan