Economic crises have often marked the starting points of industries in transformation. This time around, the view that industries must adopt eco-friendly practices is a top priority for many world leaders as energy prices rise and climate change becomes an ever-increasing concern.
Whether the environment has the highest priority in Taiwan is questionable in light of the country’s news media giving environmental issues a back seat to the global economic slowdown.
According to the International Energy Agency, Taiwan’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions rose from 5.54 tonnes in 1990 to 11.41 tonnes in 2005, ranking the highest in Asia and 18th in the world.
While many countries have tried to cut emissions below the base year level of 1990 since the Kyoto Protocol was established in 1992, Taiwan doubled per capita emissions in the same period, four times higher than the average global growth rate.
Last November, the journal Nature ranked Taiwan the 13th-largest carbon dioxide producer, up from 22nd place in 2006.
The weekly also gave Taichung County’s Lungching (龍井) Township power plant top ranking in its top 25 carbon dioxide-emitting power plants worldwide, while the cogeneration power plant in Mailiao Township (麥寮), Yunlin County, and the Hsinta thermal power plant in Kaohsiung County’s Yungan Township (永安) were also on the list.
The prospects for action looked good as both President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) repeatedly touted energy saving and emissions reductions after assuming office in May.
Actions since their inauguration, however, have made critics wonder if the promises were nothing but rhetoric.
“Ma said a number of times during the campaign and after his inauguration that he would impose a tax on carbon emissions, which would be balanced by an income tax cut. But it turned out to be nothing but talk,” Green Party Taiwan secretary-general Pan Han-shen (潘翰聲) said.
“A few months ago, Liu said he was not considering a carbon tax because of the sky-high oil prices. But now, oil prices have decreased and the [government-proposed] tax reduction bill passed [the legislature], while the carbon tax issue is still far from being taken seriously,” Pan said.
One example of how green issues are slipping down the agenda was the government’s reversal of a decision that would have seen a tax on carbon imposed for the first time.
Earlier this year, the Hualien County Council passed an Autonomy Act on Imposing Carbon Tax in Hualien County (花蓮縣碳稅徵收自治條例), aimed at plants that generate more than 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the use of coal, petroleum coke and fuel oil.
The proposal was initially approved at a Ministry of Finance screening meeting in October, but later that month, the ministry overturned the decision, withholding its permission for the imposition of the new tax.
Minister of Finance Lee Sush-der (李述德), who at first praised the proposal, saying “carbon tax was a good thing,” justified the reversal by saying “local governments are not entitled to impose the tax as it is a ‘state tax.’”
In an article critical of political intervention in the Tax Reform Committee, Tseng Chu-wei (曾巨威), a National Chengchi University professor of public finance and member of the committee, said the about-face came as the Cabinet bowed to pressure from businesses.