A wave of environmental protests in Taiwan, sometimes pitting demonstrators against police, has pushed the government to speed up new green rules to protect the environment without harming economic growth.
Economists say the stricter rules will ultimately raise the competitiveness of the US$416 billion economy against greener Asian rivals and boost its corporate image among eco-conscious Western consumers.
“People realize the short-term interests from economic development, but worry long term about environmental protection, so we need to attain a balance,” Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration Minister Stephen Shen (沈世宏) said.
Taiwan industrialized in the 1980s with little public protest to become one of Asia’s four economic dragons. Now, it is working on more transparent environmental reviews for new projects and tougher energy laws, including a tax regime and carbon reduction targets for 2020, 2025 and possibly 2050.
Officials also want to phase out traditional polluting industries and join international carbon trading schemes.
Government action follows a spate of protests, including an 8,000-strong rally on Nov. 13 denouncing a planned 300,000 barrels-per-day oil refinery complex on Taiwan’s west coast that could foul the air and hurt local dolphins.
Earlier outcries had already extended an environmental impact review of the US$36 billion Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co (國光石化科技) refinery project led by CPC Corp, Taiwan (台灣中油).
“The government hasn’t told citizens why we absolutely need this plant,” said Kan Chen-yi (甘宸宜), secretary of a conservation group behind the protest. “It could spread pollution all over Taiwan, hurt dolphins and pollute the water.”
Three fires in six months earlier in the year at a giant refinery run by Formosa Petrochemicals Corp (台塑石化) led to calls for its closure. Some protests sparked clashes with police.
In another case, farmers and environmentalists filed a lawsuit to block expansion of a science park in central Taiwan. The park was asked to reevaluate the environmental impacts and resubmit plans, the Government -Information Office said.
The new measures will oblige the densely populated Taiwan’s high-tech, petrochemical and textile companies to invest in upgrading factories.
However, officials also hope for a latent dividend — boosted corporate images and reduced energy bills.
“In the short term, in terms of costs, companies may look at the laws unfavorably, but these measures will be looked at very favorably by consumers in the United States,” said Liu Li-gang (劉利剛), head of China economic research with ANZ in Hong Kong.
Stronger environmental laws are also expected to induce new investment as local startups or foreign firms want to see specifics on rules before making a -commitment. Taiwan has long been criticized for murky or cumbersome business procedures.
The president of the US Chamber of Commerce says the 900-member body has questioned the transparency of Taiwan’s environmental impact assessment methods.
“Firms don’t want to put money into a plant and then find themselves responding to unclear or inconsistently applied rules,” said Mark Williams, senior China economist with Capital Economics in London.
Taiwan is concerned about its competition.
South Korea, heavily reliant on exports, has proposed legislation to launch a carbon emissions trading scheme this year, while Japan aims to pass a climate bill setting rigorous emissions targets.