Every year on Earth Day politicians make pledges to protect the environment. Much talk focuses on what individuals can or should do to conserve energy or recycle, instead of what governments or the private sector can or should do. Even when government action is promised, such vows are aimed at gaining headlines and TV time, not making a dent in worldwide pollution, despite the growing evidence of the damage human-driven climate change is having and will continue to have on this planet.
Taiwan is no different. Like many developing nations, it is often worse, as in the rush to development preference was given to the manufacturing, petrochemical and nuclear energy industries at the expense of the environment. Over the past decade or so, the tourism industry has become more prominent, necessitating the construction of hotels and other infrastructure, often in mountainous or coastal areas, putting pressure on land that cannot sustain such building without massive amounts of concrete, thus negating much of the beauty of the landscape that attracted visitors in the first place.
National development plans have paid lip service to environmental issues while focusing on expropriating land to build more industrial and science parks, regardless of local water resources.
While this nation has many laws to regulate development and protect flora, fauna, forests, farmland and water catchment areas, they have often been ignored, curtailed or lack the teeth to back up administrative policy with strict enforcement. Punishments for breaking laws are a slap on the wrist compared to the potential profits. Requirements that projects produce acceptable environmental impact assessments were for a long time too easy to circumvent through exemptions, grandfathering in or simply ignoring. Industrial waste treatment regulations have been met with illegal dumping of toxic waste and wastewater. Treatment facilities cannot handle all the waste being produced, while the “temporary containment” policy for nuclear waste is a prime example of abysmal mismanagement.
A growing divide has developed between policy set in Taipei and local governments, which are always seeking new sources of revenue. That divide has been echoed in the widening gap between policy and what the public demand for a sustainable living environment.
While there have been some victories for environmentalists, such as the effort to prevent the construction of a naphtha cracker, to save the pink dolphin and protect crucial wetlands from new industrial development, they have been few and far between. Moreover, new battlegrounds emerge every year.
Calls to make Taipei, other cities and industrial areas “greener” are like slapping a bandage on a broken leg.
Efforts to protect Taiwan’s ecology and environment received a boost in November last year with the release of the documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (看見台灣), which drove home the cost of a “development first” mind-set. The number of denuded and eroded mountainsides, polluted rivers and the amount of land subsidence was blindingly clear from the film’s aerial viewpoint, an aspect rarely seen by urbanites and policymakers ensconced in air-conditioned offices.
Soon after the film’s premiere, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) told his Cabinet that they had to “take an iron fist” to environmental problems. Cabinet members were divided into five teams to draw up reports on “16 crucial” problems highlighted by the film. Yet after these teams presented initial reports, little more has been heard from the Executive Yuan about what actions it will take.