The level of air pollution in the nation is a serious problem and although the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) is calling on the public to do its bit to reduce energy consumption, changing attitudes alone is not going to address the problem.
From 1995, there have been air pollution fines, and former EPA director-general Chang Lung-sheng (張隆盛) had the vision to implement disciplinary and infrastructural government policies.
In terms of the former, the agency introduced controls on sources of pollution, as well as checks and improvements. In terms of the infrastructural initiatives, it established “clean air zones” employing advanced “green” infrastructure concepts, which included the implementation of ecological restoration and facilitation techniques in large urban eco-parks, subsidized business parks, campuses, communities, roadways, stretches of unused land and landfill areas.
To support the long-term cultivation of eco-park green zones, the EPA selected stretches of land that were at least 20m to 30m wide on either side of main roads in cities and counties across the nation and rented them from state-owned Taiwan Sugar Corp — the nation’s largest landowner. It planted indigenous trees that had been proven to absorb pollutants in these areas.
Over the past 20 to 30 years, at a cost of about NT$4 billion (US$137.2 million at the current exchange rate), an area of almost 2,000 hectares has been planted, over stretches totaling 300km, with the ability to produce approximately 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. This land includes, for example, Taichung’s Dongfong cycle path, Taitung’s Guanshan Waterfront Park and the Sinying landfill site in Tainan.
I have had the opportunity of being involved in consultations and inspections during this process, and have seen how the majority of the green belts in central and southern Taiwan have now entered a phase of active carbon sequestration.
All in all, these areas take up few national resources. Yet, because most politicians are only interested in major infrastructure initiatives due to the votes they bring in, they have not really considered long-term investment into their continuation.
It is unclear whether the ecological objectives or benefits of these eco-park green belts — which include the absorption of pollutants and fugitive dust, and the creation of ecotone transition zones, thoroughfares for wild animals, nesting grounds and viewing areas — have any place in the pollution-reduction infrastructure being introduced today.
Even more regrettably, some of these shade-providing eco-park green belts are being moved or cut back to make way for wider roads, including a stretch along the east coast between Hualien and Taitung, which hardly sees a lot of traffic.
These short-term, unsustainable government policies are infuriating. It is inconceivable that the EPA could have such a shallow strategy for reducing air pollution.
How is asking people to cut down on their energy use, to reduce production and to work less any different from Beijing ordering a temporary closure of factories, telling people to vacate the city for several days and cleaning up the air in the city just for the sake of a few days of blue sky for the benefit of a G20 meeting there?
A Forestry Bureau survey found that, even though Taiwan has nearly 2.2 million hectares of forest cover, the majority of these areas are in the central mountain range and on protected hillside areas, while urban areas containing almost 80 percent of the population take up less than 20 percent of the land.
In terms of environmental protection and the control of air pollution as a whole, the future national land planning policy as regards city and forestry development in urban and rural development zones, lowland forestation in agriculture development zones, and mixed forest conservation and restoration should all be incorporated in the ecological protection and conservation net as part of environmental resource measures.
The forestry policy should continue to be based upon local ecological conditions to be sustainable.
In addition to urban forests, scenic forests, eco-forests and recreational forests, the policy should continue to use forestation to boost ecological infrastructure.
This is the most efficient and cost-effective way to invest in the environment.
Planting trees could save the country.
Monica Kuo is chair of Chinese Culture University’s landscape architecture department.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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