It’s Not All About China and the U.S at COP26: Taiwan’s Greening Strategy as a Model for the Developed Democracies

Written by Sung-Young Kim.

Image credit: 風的力量, Wind Power by YELLOW Mao. 黃毛, Photographer/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Only days out from COP26 – the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference – many commentators are now preoccupied with how the rising tensions in the geopolitical environment, especially between China and the U.S, will impact global climate action. Cooperation between countries could indeed help establish a consensus on the key clean energy technologies, green investments, and carbon reduction targets to accelerate global decarbonisation efforts.

But it is also regrettable that Taiwan will again be excluded from joining the conference as a negotiating member country. Yet, Taiwan’s success in greening its economy offers important lessons for how other developed economies and democratic countries can embark on their own national greening pathways.

Delimiting the Democratic (American) or Authoritarian (China) Alternatives

One of the significant issues that will inevitably be raised at COP26 is the best governance model for effecting a rapid, economy-wide clean energy transition. On the one hand, China’s success as the world’s largest producer of renewable energy technology devices such as solar photovoltaic modules and the world’s largest user of renewables has caught the world’s envy. But, on the other hand, the country’s success in greening efforts proves the effectiveness of its authoritarian political system or what many refer to as ‘authoritarian environmentalism.’

On the other hand, democratic America is widely seen as being less effective. While the country is home to prized green technology innovators such as Tesla, this success is by no means a reflection of the vitality of the broader U.S industrial ecosystem for green technologies and other advanced technologies. Indeed, analysts have identified a declining rate of manufacturing competitiveness over many years vis-à-vis the growth of competing industrial powers such as China. Meanwhile, America’s commitment to phasing out fossil fuels and increasing the share of renewables is patchy at best.

However, the current focus on these alternative models exemplified by the U.S and China obscures important lessons to gain from Taiwan’s greening experience.

Taiwan’s Greening Strategy

In the late 2000s, the Taiwanese government took an early lead in driving investments into green industries, including solar PV, offshore wind power and smart grids. In terms of smart grids, the Ministry of Science and Technology’s ‘National Energy Program’ (2009-2013, 2014-2018) was instrumental in coordinating domestic development efforts to create a national presence in core technologies related to intelligent transmission and distribution and metering. In addition, the Taiwan Smart Grid Industry Association (TSGIA), led by eminent Professor Faa-Jeng Lin (based at National Central University), represented a ‘hybridised industrial ecosystem.’ This refers to a set of institutions coordinating public and private cooperation over technology development and standardisation involving all the major players in the national economy linked to the global value chains. These initiatives helped establish Taiwanese companies such as Tatung and GCOM Technologies as amongst some of the most innovative globally and as producers of commercial-ready smart grid products and systems.

Government officials viewed such investments as a strategic opportunity to leverage the world-class capabilities in information technology industries (e.g., semiconductors) to enter entirely new green industries and cultivate new momentum for economic growth.

The idea was to emulate the success of the widely-studied ‘Hsinchu Model,’ which helped give birth to advanced technology firms such as TSMC – one of the world’s leading semiconductor manufacturers. Created in 1973, Hsinchu Science Park (and related sites) was established to create an industrial ecosystem composed of public actors, notably the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and private firms, all focused on the rapid commercialisation of new technologies. As a result, the focus shifted from technological imitation and reverse engineering to technological innovation through indigenous capabilities in technological field after field.

Admittedly, Taiwan’s promotion of green energy usage initially fell short of its more aggressive promotion of green technology development. As a result, even by 2015, Taiwan’s use of renewables ranked amongst the lowest in the OECD – accounting for a mere 4.07%.

However, the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen brought about a dramatic shift in Taiwan’s energy strategy. Responding to public opposition to nuclear energy in the wake of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima meltdown, Tsai committed to a nuclear-free homeland by 2025. The ‘New Energy Policy’ also laid out her government’s commitment to increasing the share of renewables to 20% by the same year. More recently, the government has shown signs of committing to a net-zero target by 2050 – which will be the subject of discussions at the upcoming COP26.

Like other strategically-oriented countries, Taiwan’s shift to renewables was also a response to dramatic falls in the costs of green technologies such as solar PV, the heightening levels of international competition in green industries, and the growing risks associated with delaying a shift to green energy due to the rise of ‘green trade barriers.’ These developments are associated with the ‘global green shift’ to renewables and resource re-circulation.

Developmental Environmentalism’ in Action

Taiwan’s green growth/green economy initiatives represent the very opposite of authoritarian environmentalism. Instead, its green shift reflects ‘developmental environmentalism’ in action, which refers to a state using green technologies and renewable energy power as a means to promote national techno-economic competitiveness. The state’s role is less about ‘pushing’ or ‘forcing’ the private sector to commit to green development and more about ‘inducing’ industry cooperation into a partnership with the government, focused on long-term transformative goals over the national economy.

Taiwan’s experience shares much in common with other examples of democratic countries which have all committed to building clean technology industries and greening their power generation, such as Germany, Denmark, and South Korea. And contrary to expectations, it is arguable that China’s greening success also has more to do with its developmental-environmental foundations than popular portrayals of its authoritarian-environmental character.

Taiwan as a Model for World Leaders at COP26?

The key ingredients in Taiwan’s successful greening strategy involve political vision, industrial planners committed to long-term focused economic transformation, and strong institutional foundations enabling government and industry coordination. Suppose world leaders at COP26 especially those from the developed democracies are serious in their search for a realistic solution to to the inter-related challenges of addressing energy security, economic growth, and ecological sustainability. In that case, it should be hard to look past Taiwan’s success.

Sung-Young Kim is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University in Sydney.

This article was published as part of a special issue on COP26 and Taiwan

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