Winter and spring often see worsening air pollution in central and southern Taiwan, with airborne particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less reaching the most hazardous level. The poor air quality, in part due to geography, which tends to trap airborne pollutants, has been a major headache for environmental agencies.
President-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been meeting business leaders. She visited the coal-fired Taichung Power Plant and attended a forum to discuss environmental problems with environmental groups and business owners.
Noting that the problems posed by the nation’s energy situation and air pollution cannot be solved immediately, Tsai said that the central government, which should have more political resources at its disposal, must work with local governments, and never leave the local governments without assistance. This makes good sense.
In the past, central and local governments were often controlled by different parties. Local government leaders would present local environmental issues to the central government without meaning to solve them, so little was actually done. The central government, on the other hand, whenever there was an environmental issue such as pollution or a construction project that required an environmental impact assessment, would often handle the matter in such a way that made the public wonder if it simply wanted to back the Ministry of Economic Affairs up.
Nonetheless, January’s presidential and legislative elections have changed Taiwan’s political situation. The central government and most of the local governments will soon be controlled by the same party, so they should be more willing to cooperate on curbing air pollution and other environmental problems.
India and China have some of the worst air pollution problems in the world, including smog. In January, New Delhi experimented with a radical traffic control measure, restricting the use of private vehicles with even-numbered license plates to odd-numbered dates, and vice versa. During the two weeks this scheme was implemented residents were surprisingly cooperative and it helped reduce the city’s air pollution by 20 percent.
In China, local governments developed measures to reduce smog, but there was little consistency in their applications. As Beijing continued to experience poor air quality, the Ministry of Environmental Protection last month finally came out with an air pollution measure based on the standards used in Beijing, unifying across China the threshold over which an alert would be triggered. The new measure is being implemented in four cities, including Beijing, Tianjin, and Tangshan in Hebei Province, before the rest of the nation follows suit.
Evidently, local governments can be creative when developing measures to curb pollution. Help from the central government is not always necessary. However, when it comes to preventing pollution on a large scale, or matters involving regulations and standardization, central government is still needed to coordinate efforts.
In Taiwan over the past two years, local governments have developed innovative ways to improve air quality. For instance, to discourage farmers from burning straw outdoors, the Changhua County Government built a rice straw recycling platform to help repurpose used straw and improve the recycling process.
In Nantou County’s Puli Township (埔里), the Environmental Protection Administration in December last year collaborated with the county government to designate a special area for air purification, where the number of diesel tour buses not meeting the area’s emission standards is controlled and electric shuttle cars are provided. Taoyuan’s Department of Environmental Protection has assembled its own apparatus to test vehicles and carry out inspections in factories. Its apparatus has not only impressed business owners, but also environmental officers from China.
All these achievements are inspiring. Industrial development projects in the past lacked planning as well as awareness of ecological sustainability. The middle and southern parts of Taiwan, in particular, have suffered from pollution, partly because of a geography that impedes air flow, and partly because of the number and density of factories there.
Regional air quality cannot be improved unless central and local governments work together. With less preoccupation with political interests, and more creativity, along with a belief in the environmental cause, Taiwan can still be a more eco-friendly place.
Young Chea-yuan is a professor and chairman of the Department of Natural Resources at Chinese Culture University.
Translated by Yu-an Tu
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