Wed, Apr 30, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Token pledges on Earth Day

Just one week after Earth Day, it seems as unlikely as ever that much is in the works to achieve the environmental goals our leaders so often tout.

Earth Day brought plenty of discussion in political circles about what the individual can do to conserve energy, but too little talk about the role of the government and even less about the responsibilities of business.

The single most important voice on Earth Day was president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the one person who will have the most sway over the next four years to kick-start national environmental efforts that until now have been a farce.

But while Ma has set frantic timetables for opening up to Chinese tourists, launching cross-strait flights, passing the budget for his iTaiwan infrastructure projects and addressing investment caps for businesses operating in China, he has hardly shown the same impetus to get environmental goals out of the starting gate.

The best the public heard from the incoming head of state on that day was a series of vague promises to implement an “energy tax” targeting end users, use the income to subsidize “green” companies and set a water quota per person.

Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Winston Dang (陳重信) praised the tax and quota as measures that would help push for energy efficiency in households, but added that they dodged the most difficult issues. In the absence of legislating goals and regulations to reduce the nation’s soaring carbon emissions, these would only be token gestures that avoid the crux of the problem.

The risk is very real that Ma, whose party has not been very keen to pass the EPA’s proposed emissions bill in the legislature, will be perfectly content to maintain the nation’s “green” efforts at the level of token measures.

During last Tuesday’s annual 24-hour environmental pledge-fest, Ma was focused on the platform that got him elected — his promise to create a new economic miracle. Meeting business tycoons in Taipei’s Neihu District (內湖), Ma promised lower taxes to entice companies. At an investment forum on Thursday, he promised businesses faster economic expansion and a more attractive investment environment.

As usual, Ma was out to please. But the challenge with tackling pollution is that it isn’t going to please anyone: not the public, already reeling under the effect of soaring commodity prices; and not the companies, looking to maximize profits and minimize costs.

Ma’s talk about financial incentives to make operating in Taiwan cheaper comes at a time when environmentalists are asking the government to make polluting more expensive for firms. But the essence of his vision for the nation’s future is illustrated by the iTaiwan platform, the goal of which is to bolster the economy by boosting domestic demand — and thereby domestic consumption. What isn’t clear is how the president-elect intends to incorporate environmental concerns while expanding consumption.

Ma has always been a charmer, but saving the environment will require someone willing to rock the boat and make enemies. After all, everyone seems to agree something must be done, but no one is interested in making sacrifices. Yet the second economic miracle Ma is pursuing must seek to teach us the worth of our environment and treat sustainability as a pillar of high living standards that cannot be compromised.

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