By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Having vowed to close its four nuclear power plants by 2025, Taiwan is in the midst of transforming its energy supply to more renewable sources. But the transition is fraught with challenges.
The first is the extent of the island’s dependence on nuclear power.
“Nuclear power is 17% of our energy,” said Alex Fan, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Seattle.
“Where can we get that from?” he said.
In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen promised to close the island’s three active nuclear power plants, most of which are nearing the end of their lifetimes. She also promised not to open a fourth one that is not yet complete.
Fan said opposition to nuclear power stems from fears that earthquakes could inflict catastrophic damage, as occurred in Fukushima, Japan in 2011. Taiwan is prone to earthquakes, he said. In the long term, Taiwan is switching to wind turbines and solar panels to compensate, and eventually plans for 20% of its power to come from those sources.
On Nov. 19, Tsai inaugurated Taiwan’s first off-shore wind turbine plant. She touted it as part of a broader program for Taiwan to become “Asia’s green energy hub.”
“Taiwan must not let the business opportunities, technologies, and jobs of the green energy sector slip away to other countries,” she said at a press conference.
But even with the new plant, the island will not have enough wind and solar power to replace the 17% of total energy lost from the nuclear plants. So in the short term, the government plans to increase the use of liquid natural gas (LNG).
“But we must have tanks to store it, and at the moment, we don’t have enough facilities,” said Fan. Still another challenge is the precariousness of just getting the LNG.
“What if someday you can’t buy it?” asked Fan. Ninety-nine percent of Taiwan’s energy is imported, he said.
“Business and industry need a stable supply,” he said. “You need business treaties, you need to think about the international situation.”
The long-term goal is to increase the use of natural gas to 50% of the island’s total energy supply while upping wind and solar to 20%. Meanwhile, Tsai’s administration plans to reduce the use of coal, which accounts for over 50% of the island’s power, to less than 30%.
Global issues and challenges
Taiwan is largely excluded from international political and strategic organizations, which impedes its ability to contribute to global environmental, health, and safety issues, said Fan.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory so it pressures other countries to prevent it from taking part in the World Health Organization (WHO), for instance.
But Taiwan is closely intermeshed with the rest of the world economically, and such exclusion is dangerous, for instance during the coronavirus outbreak, said Fan.
There are 10 flights from Taipei to Seattle per week. That will increase to 12 in May, he said. Without coordination through WHO, prevention and monitoring becomes more difficult, he added. Still, Taiwan has vowed to follow the conventions of international health and safety organizations.
Though the island is excluded from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, Tsai has promised to uphold the greenhouse gas emission standards.
By 2050, emissions will be reduced to 50% of the levels of 2005, said Fan.
“Taiwan can’t be a member, but still has the desire to be a member of the global village,” he said.
Taiwan is also excluded from Interpol, said Fan, which could lessen its ability to aid in the fight against terrorism. Nor does Taiwan have an extradition treaty with the United States.
“Nevertheless, if you committed a crime, we’d find a way to send you back,” he said.
Transformation of the island
Scholars debate what combination of economic changes and democratization brought about Taiwan’s environmental changes. But the transformation of the island over the past few decades is indisputable.
“My diary from 1991 refers to Taiwan as ‘garbage island’—the air was terrible and foods were pesticide-laden. Nowadays the streets are clean, the air is cleaner, and the environmental movement is active everywhere and a major factor in national and local politics,” wrote Stevan Harrell, a University of Washington anthropologist who is a leader in the study of East Asian environmental change, in a forthcoming book.
Taiwan’s air has improved due to “increasingly stringent regulations and in some cases economic incentives,” wrote Harrell. But ozone pollution, from vehicle exhaust, remains a problem.
Since democratic reforms in the 1990s, Taiwan has been grappling with its traffic problem, including tens of millions of scooters clogging the streets and throwing up clouds of noxious blue smoke.
Over the past few years, a Taiwanese company has begun manufacturing electric scooters. But this has yet to make a major impact, wrote Harrell.
As Taiwan grew rich through the 1960s and 1970s, and eventually developed democracy, the government has planted more trees, although the island was never severely deforested, as other parts of Asia were, particularly China.
In 1976, forest covered 50.8% of the island compared with 60.9% in 2012, according to Harrell. The numbers also reflected a switch to fossil fuels rather than burning biomass for fuel, he wrote.
Soil restoration, as in other parts of Asia, has been much harder to implement.
Industrialization and rapid economic development left areas of the island polluted with heavy metal and waste.
In 2002, the government began to officially clean up polluted sites, but progress has been slow. Some of this came about as the result of protests and activism.
Since the 1980s, as part of a pro-Democracy movement, environmental activists have pressured the government.
Now the environmental movement has turned professional and includes full-time staff, members of the urban middle class, teachers, students, fishermen, and indigenous people.
In one of Taiwan’s historically most polluted cities, Kaohsiung, life expectancy is 4.3 years shorter than in the capital, Taipei, according to a recent study.
Ongoing protests against industrial development have forced the government to close industrial plants. And recently, school children and teachers monitored emissions from a nearby cement factory, sharing their data with the public.
Meanwhile, scholars have joined public television in examining attitudes toward environmental waste among indigenous peoples. One scholar found that indigenous people on the neighboring island of Lanyu, where nuclear waste has been stored for decades, opposed the repository. But another tribe of indigenous people on the southeastern coast of Taiwan was less opposed to a planned repository because the authority of their elders had been destroyed and replaced by loyalty to the state.
An immediate issue
Such a heightened concern is emblematic of the mindset of a growing number of Taiwanese.
A poll last year found that the environment is now the number one concern for most people on the island, even above income, said Shu-hui Shih, deputy director for TECO in Seattle.
Some of this is due to the proximity to China. Taiwan is roughly 100 miles off its coast and is sometimes flooded with China’s air pollution, she said.
Meanwhile, because of climate change, typhoons, which once regularly slammed the island and provided necessary rainwater, have decreased in recent years. These are reminders, for many, that environmental safety is not just a future issue.
“This is a problem Taiwan has to face right now,” said Shih.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.