A recent suggestion by Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Stephen Shen (沈世宏) to use Taiwan’s fallow land for photonic greenhouses to produce energy and crops (“Minister envisions 200,000 hectares of greenhouses,” Dec. 30, page 2) throws up a conundrum. While the production of renewable energy is good for the environment, converting fallow land might not be.
There is a general problem of perception: Living ecosystems, including those on fallow land, are still considered useless by most people, or at least expendable if a “greater” need arises, such as producing energy or food. I previously wrote about the biodiversity crisis (“One crisis that can’t be ignored any longer,” Nov. 29, page 8), and the main reason for this crisis is our increasing conversion of natural land for human land use.
However, with the world’s population standing at 6 billion, we are already running out of land and demands on ecological resources have already caused biodiversity to collapse.
Taiwan has one of the highest population densities in the world, meaning it has little available land for the basic land uses that shape the Earth’s surface: human settlements, agriculture, forestry and natural habitats which provide biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services. Shen has now thrown renewable energy production into this mix.
Before large parts of Taiwan are converted to human use and thus lost to other uses like biodiversity conservation, I would suggest a pause for thought. Given the limited amount of usable land, I believe it is important to make a strategic plan on how these conflicting land uses can be reconciled without biodiversity suffering.
Tough questions should be asked. For example, given the impending water crisis, should not the protection of living ecosystems, which protect water resources and prevent erosion, be given higher priority? Should fallow lands perhaps be regenerated into forests or other natural habitats?
Might it be better to invest the money for the greenhouses in energy-saving measures? I pointed out possible energy savings for buildings (“Nature has answers to problems,” Dec. 13, page 8) but many other energy savings are also easily achievable, for example, through public transport. Therefore, saving energy is a much better option than producing more energy. The recent destruction of one of Taiwan’s last lowland rainforests for the hydroelectric dam in the Huben-Hushan area is a case in point. Surely the energy gained by the dam could have been saved through other measures.
The point is: How can we use land more effectively and not convert the last remaining ecosystems whenever human need arises? Well, photonic greenhouses could be placed on rooftops, over parking lots and in other unused urban spaces. In the long term, renewable energy plants should be placed where they do least harm, in deserts, oceans and outer space. Such developments are already taking place and deserve support. While they may sound futuristic, we do ourselves no favors by continuing to pursue short-term solutions.
Converting land into greenhouses may seem like a good idea, but in the long term, and looking at all land use, it doesn’t seem so smart, as it denies land for other needs such as water and biodiversity conservation. Taiwan could become a test case for reconciling conflicting land uses so as to increase human quality of life without sacrificing food security, energy production and ecosystem conservation. To become a shining example for the rest of the world is a splendid challenge for the EPA.
Bruno Walther is a visiting assistant professor of environmental science at Taipei Medical University.
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