Written by Ming-sho Ho.
On Earth Day (April 22) of 2021, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen unveiled the goal of realizing carbon neutrality by 2050. By then, Taiwan is expected to absorb or eliminate all locally generated greenhouse gas to reduce the net emission to zero. Tsai reiterated this pledge in the National Day (October 10) speech. The government is also preparing to amend the 2015 Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act (GGRMA) by stipulating the net-zero commitment and adopting the measure of carbon pricing. As the world leaders are gathered for the Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), more than 130 countries made official promises to go net zero. Last year, Taiwan’s regional neighbours resolved to take the path. Japan (world’s 5th carbon emitter) and South Korea (the 7th) decided to embrace that goal by 2050, while China (the number one polluter which accounted for nearly 30 per cent of the emission) set its eye on the year 2060. As such, Taiwan (the 21st emitter according to its EPA) appeared to trail in the worldwide trend rather than taking the lead.
Taiwan’s belated response to the global climate action is easily explainable by the island nation’s awkward international standing. Prevented from joining the United Nations-led governing framework, Taiwan could only send parastatal agencies (such as Industrial Technology Research Institute) or scholars to participate in the NGO sessions in the annual COP meetings. In the realm of international politics, “taxation without representation” still applies. However, the lack of representation does not absolve Taiwan’s duty in the global village, mainly since its high dependence on international trade makes it vulnerable to environment-related sanctions. In the past, Taiwan’s climate policies were formulated primarily in response to global trends rather than domestic pressures. In anticipation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Executive Yuan National Sustainable Development Council upgraded a previous ad hoc task force. The GGRMA was legislated as a rejoinder to the 2015 Paris Accord. It follows Taiwan’s new pledge was similarly motivated, as the net-zero goal has emerged as the worldwide consensus.
Taiwan’s lack of official access to the global climate change governing body certainly left an indelible mark on the domestic environmental movement. While there have been annual demonstrations to oppose nuclear energy and air pollution, large-scale rallies on climate politics have been rare and intermittent. Since 2019, Taiwan’s teenagers have launched their “Friday for Future” protests, which, however, only attracted scant media attention. Taiwan has a feisty and vibrant environmental political tradition, and issues such as nuclear energy, coal power, air pollution, radioactivity-contaminated food, and algae coral protection have recently emerged as the ballot questions in the national referendums. By contrast, the silence on climate change is almost deafening. As I analysed in a recent article, the insufficient attention from mainstream environmentalists has inadvertently created a void, whereby Taiwan’ pronuclear activists could frame their “Nuclear Pride” events as genuine climate action.
Are Taiwanese citizens ready to embrace a carbon-neutral future? Do they have a sufficient understanding of the risk at hand? Are they willing to adjust their lifestyle to meet the requirement of sustainability? The existing poll data reveal an uncertain picture. For example, an online survey by Yahoo in April this year asked whether internet users were concerned about global warming. In response, 88.9 per cent of respondents indicated their “grave concern” and “concern.” Yet, the result of this online survey needs to be taken with a grain of salt. First, the question was about “global warming” rather than “climate change.” As the former is more intuitively understandable in subtropical Taiwan, the figure cannot be taken as a direct measurement of citizens’ climate consciousness. Secondly, expressed concerns do not always come with correct knowledge. Moreover, according to the Taiwan Institute for Sustainable Energy annual surveys, the Taiwanese were woefully ignorant of the country’s dependence on energy imports and the primary sources of electrical power.
Three surveys from 2017 to 2020 indicated more than 99 per cent of respondents did not know the 2015 GGRMA’s professed goal to reduce the emission in 2050 to half of that in 2005. Lastly, it isn’t very certain whether Taiwanese’ climate consciousness can grow. According to Academic Sinica’s Taiwan Social Change Survey, people who were “very concerned” and “concerned” about “how climate change and global warming will affect their family” declined from 70.3 per cent in 2013 to 64.7 per cent in 2019. The 2019 survey also asked respondents about their perception of the other nine types of risk. The climate concern ranked 5th in terms of priority, trailing behind food poisoning by heavy metal and plasticizer (75.8 per cent), air pollution (75.5 per cent), chemical residual in food (72.1 per cent), and traffic accidents (67.5 per cent). Thus, the Taiwanese were more obsessed with the dangers from their immediate surroundings, and climate change’s apocalyptic threat still appears too remote.
Furthermore, it remains doubtful whether Taiwan’s citizens are willing to share the cost for transitioning to the carbon-neutral future. Taiwan’s electricity price has been proverbially low by international standards. Yet, the commitment to carbon-free energy sources, such as solar and wind power, may require a price hike in the transition so that the country can gradually wean off from dirty but cheap coal power.
The former Kuomintang government’s decision to raise the prices for gasoline and electricity simultaneously in 2012, shortly after President Ma Ying-jeou won the reelection, has become a negative lesson for the subsequent incumbents. Ma’s decision was geared toward the rising price of petroleum, which had nothing to do with the energy transition, yet he paid the price by a sudden drop in support rate. As a result, a low electricity price has emerged as the birthright for Taiwanese even though more than 98 per cent of the nation’s energy sources depend on imports. With the current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government’s commitment to boost green energy production, an upward adjustment of the retail electricity price remains off the agenda. As such, one can legitimately cast doubt whether any of Taiwan’s incumbents are willing to suffer the political backlash in public opinions to take necessary climate actions, given that Taiwan’s party politics are relentlessly fierce.
Another piece of evidence is related to the aborted phase-out of a gasoline vehicle. In early 2018, the DPP government announced a ban on the sale of new gasoline scooters in 2035 and also new gasoline cars in 2040. The announcement quickly generated resistance from the producers of conventional scooters and vehicles, so that the ban was annulled in the following year. The policy about-face was surprising in that it elicited scant responses from the public. Electric vehicles have long been seen as a necessary component in the climate change mitigation package. Yet, even Taiwan’s air pollution advocates remained conspicuously silent about this issue because their attention was primarily fixed on the smokestack pollution. They appeared reluctant to address the issue of mobile sources of air pollution to maintain their popularity.
Of course, one can exonerate citizens’ duty by citing that Taiwan’s petrochemical giant Formosa Plastic Group alone counted for nearly 20 per cent of Taiwan’s carbon emission. Nevertheless, the net-zero goal still requires a nationwide effort to reduce its carbon footprint. The chronically low electricity price and the difficulty to phase out gasoline vehicles are just the symptoms of a society that claims to be genuinely concerned about the grave consequences of climate change and yet consistently dodges the essential responsibilities and actions to mitigate its impacts. Therefore, while it is still laudable that Taiwan’s leaders finally come on board with the worldwide commitment to a carbon-neutral trajectory, it remains a significant challenge whether Taiwan’s citizens are ready for a substantial readjustment of their lifestyle for the sake of the earth’s future.
Ming-sho Ho is a Professor at the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University and the Director of Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Ministry of Science and Technology (Taiwan).
This article was published as part of a special issue on COP26 and Taiwan