The price of Taiwan's economic juggernaut over the past 30 years was brought into stark focus last month at the Davos World Economic Forum when a highly regarded report on environmental sustainability placed the country at the very bottom of 146 surveyed nations, only slightly ahead of North Korea, but behind such countries as Iraq and Turkmenistan.
News of Taiwan's dismal ranking in the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) was largely drowned out by the lead-in to the Lunar New Year, but came as a bombshell to officials and experts in the field here, producing a mixture of consternation and navel-gazing at the highest levels of government.
The Council for Economic Planning and Development responded to the report in the days immediately following its release with a statement that dismissed the survey's findings as "unfair and biased" against Taiwan because of the country's non-participation in a number of international organizations.
But experts and officials more closely familiar with the report and one of the survey's authors at the Yale University Center for Environmental Law and Policy warned that while Taiwan's score is problematic due to imperfect data employed in the index, credible evidence nonetheless indicates that Taiwan faces major challenges in overcoming its myriad environmental problems, most of them attributable to the country's rapid industrialization.
"After reviewing the survey's methodology, it is clear that the index has definite credibility. This is a serious group and their findings should be heeded with the proper humility," said Winston Dang (
Numbers don't lie
Carried out by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities, the ESI attempts to generate a comprehensive, quantitative overview of countries' environmental stewardship, past and present, as well as forecast the likelihood that the country will preserve its environmental resources into the coming decades.
The index integrates 76 data sets that fall into five general component categories: environmental systems, reducing environmental stresses, reducing human vulnerability to environmental stresses, societal and institutional capacity to respond to environmental challenges and global stewardship.
Individual countries often showed drastically divergent scores from category to category, with the result that countries possessing radically different environmental profiles end up with similar rankings. The report cites the cases of Indonesia and Spain, ranked 75 and 76 respectively. Abundant natural resources in the Southeast Asian country tip the scales against its significant dearth in institutional capacity to handle environmental problems, whereas a relative paucity of resources in Spain is compensated in part by strong governance.
The report underlines the possibility that the score does not necessarily reflect the population's experience of its immediate environment. For this reason, the authors recommend that the research be considered at a deeper level than the score alone.
"We think it's critical for each country to drill into [the survey] and look at it at a deeper level, issue by issue, to find out where they are down," director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Daniel Esty, told the Taipei Times.