Taiwan: A Microcosm for Climate Change
Why hasn’t Taiwan taken more of an active role in international climate change efforts?
- If Taiwan is going to seriously curb its rapidly growing greenhouse gas emissions — by 227% if it were to follow the international standards set by the UN — it is going to need serious help.
- Taiwan's per capita carbon dioxide emissions are already three times the world average and they are growing faster than any other country in the world.
- Unlike other industrialized nations, Taiwan has not made national commitments to carbon reductions, because, well, it isn't a nation.
Taiwan’s climate change story begins much like that of other tropical island nations. Scientists project higher intensity of typhoons and hurricanes, increasing geographic spread of tropical diseases such as dengue fever, and rising oceans leading to decreased land area, among other impacts.
And, like other industrialized economies, Taiwan is also a big part of the problem.
Its per capita carbon dioxide emissions are already three times the world average and they are growing faster than any other country in the world.
With these scenarios alone, one could argue that Taiwan would have incentive enough to engage in the fight against climate change. And it does. But this is where the plot takes a dive into murky waters. Taiwan sees itself as a “responsible member” of the global community and has taken initial actions to curb carbon dioxide emissions in limited pockets around the country.
But unlike other industrialized nations, Taiwan has not made national commitments to carbon reductions, because, well, it isn’t a nation. At least, not according to the majority of United Nations members.
Ever since Chinese representation in the UN was transferred to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, Taiwan — the Republic of China — has been struggling to find its political footing on the international scene.
And when it comes to global challenges like climate change, Taiwan’s political nebulousness makes it difficult, if not impossible, to engage. Taiwanese leaders don’t get invited to international negotiations on climate change.
And since Taiwan itself in not a UN member, its leaders cannot join in the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change or the Kyoto Protocol — currently the most important legally binding international treaty on climate change. This means that Taiwanese companies can’t lower the costs of reducing their emissions through the international Clean Development Mechanism carbon trading markets.
This is not to say that Taiwan is doing nothing. Officially, Taiwan has adopted the policy of “voluntary compliance” to international environmental agreements, and some Taiwanese cities have pledged emissions reductions targets.
For example, Kaohsiung, a city responsible for a quarter of Taiwan’s carbon dioxide emissions, has drafted a climate change plan. Taipei, the capital, and Kaohsiung have also signed onto the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Analysis Protocol of the ICLEI, a global association of local governments dedicated to sustainable development.
Taiwan also has a strong civil society, which is increasingly finding a voice in the face of climate change. As Tang Ching-ping, a professor of political science at Chengchi University in Taipei, explains: “NGO’s don’t control politics, but they have been remarkably successful in changing the political attitudes of politicians.”
The Taiwan Environmental Action Network, for example, was behind the grassroots effort that pushed Kaohsiung and Taipei to sign the ICLEI climate agreements. “We have found,” explains TEAN Office Director Lee Yu-jung, “that the most effective way of making change in Taiwan is to instigate international pressure.”
This is especially true when this pressure can be directed on international trade with Taiwan, so the group has been focusing on international trade policy. “If the government feels economic pressure,” says Lee, “then it will guide Taiwanese companies to take responsibility for their emissions.”
Taiwanese environmental groups are also mindful of the heavy toll that Taiwan’s industrialized lifestyle takes on the global climate. Organizations such as the Green Formasa Front and the Homemakers’ Union and Foundation are focusing their efforts on changing the individual behavior and lifestyle of Taiwanese citizens.
In recent months, they have led consumer awareness campaigns for food localization and sustainable agriculture, often citing the heavy carbon footprint of Taiwanese pesticide and fertilizer use and of imported organic foods.
“We try to find ways for people to relate these larger problems to their individual lives,” explains Chen Man-li of the Homemakers’ Union. “And then people can help solve the problem by changing their lifestyles.”
Taiwan’s political dilemma has created a system not unlike that in several U.S. states in recent years. In the face of stubborn climate change denial in Washington, climate commitments started from the grassroots and worked their way up to individual cities, counties and states making emissions reductions pledges ahead of national mobilization.
But in the United States, these efforts have always been carried out within the context of a larger body politic that can eventually do more. If the individual states put enough pressure on Washington, D.C., logic had it that Washington would then eventually have to follow suit. Indeed, that seems to be what is happening in Washington now.
But Taiwan doesn’t have a Washington. It only has a Taipei — and that Taipei is struggling for the political authority to engage.
When the mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiung returned from their ICLEI meetings, ready to roll up their sleeves and do the hard, expensive, messy work of lowering their carbon emissions, the best they could hope for was a bit of cheering on from local organizations and international friends.
But if Taiwan is going to seriously curb its rapidly growing greenhouse gas emissions — by 227% if it were to follow the international standards set by the UN — it is going to need serious help. While Taiwan’s grassroots are making some difference, they lack the systemic change necessary to bring emissions down meaningfully. This will ultimately have to come from international pressure and cooperation.
“Taiwan’s environmental problems have largely been ignored by the global community in recent years,” concludes Lee Yu-jung. “If we are going to be part of the solution, we need to have a framework for participating in global emissions reductions.”