Taiwan’s status at the science-policy interface for global climate change: why getting it right matters

Written by Leslie Mabon.

Image credit: Couresy of Leslie Mabon

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) arguably represents an unprecedented level of international cooperation on a global problem. Therefore, the 2021 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC – COP26 in Glasgow – is especially significant. COP26 marks five years (including a one-year pause due to COVID) since the Paris Agreement and is the first point at which countries must update their pledges for action to limit global warming to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible. Yet despite the importance of COP26 and the UNFCCC to find ways of avoiding harmful climate change, one high-emitting country of 23 million people will be absent from the negotiations – Taiwan.

As Taiwan is not recognised as a member of the United Nations, it is excluded from the UNFCCC and, indeed, other fora relevant to climate change responses such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Moreover, whilst Taiwan was an observer to the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the Tsai Administration has found itself with fewer and fewer opportunities to participate in international conferences. Nonetheless, the marginalisation of Taiwan within global climate change action extends far beyond state-level UN agreements and into processes of scientific enquiry and semi-formal spaces of global exchange and learning. As we outline in a recent peer-reviewed contribution to Frontiers in Climate, the marginal or at least inconsistent recognition of Taiwan poses severe problems for effective evidence-driven global action on climate change in at least three ways.

First, the exclusion of Taiwan from the UNFCCC means the country is not a signatory to the Paris Agreement. However, the Taiwanese Government has pledged to ratify the agreement voluntarily. Hence, it has produced its own Intended Nationally Determined Contribution – the document each country must submit to the UNFCCC outlining fair and ambitious actions they will take to contribute to the global climate effort. Yet, despite these good intentions, domestic environmental NGOs have criticised the Taiwanese government for lack of conviction in turning this climate rhetoric into reality. On a pragmatic level, the exclusion of Taiwan from the UNFCCC means a nation of 23 million people with per capita emissions nearly three times the global average are not included in the legally binding agreement. An agreement widely considered to represent the world’s best chance at avoiding dangerous levels of climate change.

Second, as well as forging agreements and commitments, international summits and conferences are also spaces for mutual learning and alliance-building between countries. The complexity of the climate challenge means that peer-to-peer learning between nations – or across cities and regions – is an essential part of upscaling successful innovations and, indeed, learning from failures. The limited scope for Taiwan to participate in state-level climate change conferences may thus restrict the ability of other nations to learn from aspects in which Taiwan has done well, such as the rapid deployment of offshore wind and the development of participatory and deliberative approaches to decision-making. Conversely, this exclusion may also make it harder for Taiwan to learn from other cases globally in support of areas where its climate response is falling short.

Moreover, even in less formalised international spaces where Taiwanese participation is possible, such as international organisations operating at the science-policy interface, Taiwan is often mis-recognised or inconsistently labelled. For example, the International Science Council use the label ‘China: Taipei’; the World Bank deploy ‘Taiwan, China’; and ICLEI and the Global Covenant of Mayors refer to the country as ‘Chinese Taipei.’ Such inconsistency can create confusion, as it cannot be assumed that a global audience will be aware of the intricacies of the geopolitical situation between Taiwan and PR China. This ambiguity is especially problematic given that successful peer-to-peer learning rests on a good understanding of the social, political, and economic factors underpinning best practice case studies. Without a clear and consistent understanding that Taiwan is a separate entity from China with its own democratic political structures, socio-economic characteristics, and demographic profile, the factors that have enabled Taiwan to succeed in some areas of climate action may be obscured to a global audience.

This inconsistency leads to our third and final concern – the misrecognition of Taiwan in international scientific processes for climate change. The ambiguity of Taiwan’s status in international climate change science starts in the most authoritative documents that provide the evidence base underpinning the COP26 negotiations: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports. Within the IPCC, research produced in and about Taiwan is variously described as relating to ‘Taiwan China,’ ‘Taiwan Province of China,’ ‘Taiwan of China’ or simply ‘Taiwan.’ This lack of consistency is also evident in synthesis papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, which integrate the results of previous studies into the effects of climate change. In our recent analysis, we found several cases where data from Taiwan was either listed as being from ‘China’ or was mixed in with data from PR China, Hong Kong, and Macau to give a single overall picture of the situation in ‘China.’

It would be unfair to single out authors for criticism here, as country affiliations are often determined by editorial policies or institutional processes and are not necessarily the choice of study authors. Nevertheless, the inconsistent conflation of ‘Taiwan’ with ‘China’ in the peer-reviewed literature can potentially create confusion on the scientific record. If subsequent authors conduct further meta-analysis on such studies, they may well erroneously interpret the findings as referring to PR China, an entity with very different social, economic, and political conditions. This has the potential to be highly problematic in cases where evidence syntheses are used to make policy recommendations for the social and economic aspects of responding to climate change.

Taiwan’s exclusion from COP26, the UNFCCC, and international mechanisms for responding to climate change is a political choice. However, as I have argued in this piece, such political decisions can seriously impact a scientifically robust and evidence-driven global climate change response. Thus, granting fuller recognition and respect to Taiwan during and after COP26 would go some way to enabling more rigorous, inclusive, and effective climate action.

Laslie Mabon is a Lecturer in Environmental Systems in the School of Engineering and Innovation at the Open University. He is a member of the Young Academy of Scotland – where I lead the Zero Carbon by 2045 Grand Challenge – and am a Future Earth Coasts Fellow.

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

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