The thermal power station in Taichung produces the single largest amount of carbon dioxide of any power plant in the world, an article in the British scientific journal Nature reported recently.
And another plant in Mailiao comes in sixth.
These figures may not surprise anyone who understands Taiwan's environmental issues. Predictably, the Taiwan Power Co and government agencies will respond with figures proving the nation's power plants are actually fairly efficient. Yet we must look behind these figures to grasp the truth of the matter.
Between 1990 and 2005, Taiwan's carbon-dioxide emissions rose from 5.19 tonnes to 10.2 tonnes per capita, the fastest rate of growth in the world.
In 2004, the average carbon dioxide emissions per capita in Taiwan ranked 18th internationally. Excluding the oil producing nations of the Middle East, Taiwan would be first in Asia, ahead of countries with higher national income, such as South Korea and Japan.
For every US dollar of national income generated, Taiwan produces 0.829kg of carbon dioxide, placing it fifth in the world.
Without a doubt, Taiwan's carbon emission rate is too high. More shocking, however, is the fact that the situation is getting worse. Bureau of Energy estimates show that between this year and 2015, electricity demand is expected to rise by 36 percent. More power plants will have to be built to "promote sustainable energy consumption."
Who should be held accountable for this situation? Reprehensibly, it is apparent that both the government and the general public are unwilling to tackle the problem. Everyone appears willing to rely upon the Environmental Protection Administration's environmental impact assessment (EIA) mechanism to resolve carbon emission problems. This does not give the issue the attention it deserves.
Since last year, I have been a member of an EIA team investigating a proposal for a new coal burning thermal station. Most members of the team are very conscientious about their responsibilities. Because of the tenacity of the established view, however, the attention given to greenhouse gas emissions remains inadequate.
My notes show that out of the 524 comments made during our meetings, only 11.8 percent were concerned with greenhouse gases, electricity demand estimates, energy efficiency, alternative energy and other related issues -- a tiny proportion when weighed against the importance of the topic.
Practical discussion was difficult because whenever a team member raised questions about greenhouse gases or similar issues, government representatives and development organizations either avoided the basic questions or dodged responsibility by saying the development of new energy sources was the nation's established energy policy.
Apparently, the EIA mechanism is intended to simply provide input after policy has been determined, not to question the premises upon which the development plans were established.
Given the claims that economic development and environmental protection must both be prioritized, the evaluation team ruled that the proposed coal burning thermal station had passed the assessment criteria.
If the plant is actually built, Taiwan's annual output of carbon dioxide will increase by another 3 percent. Have economic development and environmental protection really been placed at the same level of priority?
Obviously, in this instance, the EIA mechanism, like the government and the public, does not give serious consideration to possible alternatives for true sustainability. Instead it is bogged down by the notion that as long as the demand for development exists, greenhouse gas emissions can be justified. The end result is that Taiwan continues to significantly increase its carbon dioxide output, while the international community cries out for action to stem climate change.
Perhaps this is not so surprising: Our politicians occupy themselves daily with political issues; the upper middle class occupies itself with getting wealthy and boosting its children's competitive advantages. Every member of society with political or economic influence can find adequate excuse to ignore global warming, allowing the responsibility to fall upon the EIA mechanism.
While we may not fear punishment from the international community, how can we own up to our moral responsibility toward the disadvantaged victims of environmental damage in other nations and the future of our own children?
Tai Hsing-sheng is an assistant professor at the Hualien University of Education.
Translated by Angela Hong
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