Sat, Dec 02, 2017 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Pollution a joint responsibility

Resigning to take responsibility for a problem or policy failure is seen as an admirable gesture, just as mobs baying for heads to roll or the death penalty to be carried out are often considered acceptable responses to a crisis or tragedy.

However, both merely serve as smokescreens to hide and deflect, often obstructing more constructive and effective solutions.

Then-minister of economic affairs Lee Chih-kung (李世光) resigned on Aug. 15 to take the blame for a natural gas supply disruption to a major power plant in Taoyuan that led to power outages in 17 cities and counties.

Weeks of hot weather had pushed power consumption around the nation to record highs this summer, while the collapse of an electricity transmission tower in Hualien County during a typhoon and problems at several power plants had left the nation’s electricity reserves at historic lows.

None of these were Lee’s fault, nor the fault of the ministry’s policies in the year that he had been in office. In the case of the gas disruption, it was human error compounded by system failures.

Yet a human sacrifice was needed to placate an irate public and industrial sector that have long been accustomed to cheap power and reluctant to reduce their demand for ever more air conditioning to stave off the summer heat.

Now Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Lee Ying-yuan (李應元) is vowing to resign if air pollution nationwide is not reduced by 20 percent by May 20.

His surprise announcement at a news conference on Thursday capped two months of increasing calls for the government to amend the Air Pollution Control Act (空氣污染防制法), several policy announcements by the EPA about curbing pollution and fining polluting factories, and days of severe haze and poor air quality around the nation.

Lee Ying-yuan said the billions that the EPA has invested in policies aimed at reducing pollution have led to a gradual improvement in the situation, but if the number of days when the air quality index reaches unhealthy levels does not drop by 20 percent, he would step down to take responsibility.

It was a powerful moment of political theater, but basically pointless.

Efforts to combat air pollution in Taiwan over the past two decades have led to major improvements in air quality — as anyone who can remember summers in Taipei in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when some days were so smoggy that Yangmingshan and other mountains around the city were hidden from view, while Kaohsiung was wrapped in an industrial haze most days of the year.

However, efforts to further curb pollution have been hampered by a confluence of factors: the growing reliance on coal-fired power plants amid efforts to shutter the nation’s nuclear power industry, a reluctance to tackle pollution by large-scale manufacturers for fear of hurting economic development, an ever-increasing number of vehicles on the road, and the weather — both in the form of low-pressure vortexes that trap bad air above the big cities, and in wind patterns that blow China’s heavily polluted air over this nation.

The conflicting imperatives of Cabinet ministries have contributed to the mess: The EPA is under orders to cut pollution and protect the environment, while the Ministry of Economic Affairs is supposed to protect and promote the manufacturing sector and the nation’s development.

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