The eyes of the international community were on the COP27 climate conference in Egypt last week. Despite all hopes, many experts know that international cooperation is needed when it seems almost impossible to achieve.
In his speech to open the conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that there are only two options in humanity’s fight against climate change — cooperate or perish. He also said that tipping points are about to be reached unless the global north and south finally make a pact to slow the pace of climate change.
However, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Provisional State of the Global Climate 2022 report, despite efforts to cut carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, the most significant emitters of global greenhouse gas (GHG) have failed to cut emissions, and warming continues at an accelerating pace.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report estimated that between 2011 and 2020, the average global temperature was 1.09°C above the pre-industrial level.
Meanwhile, the WMO’s initial findings for the past nine years showed that the average temperature is now 1.14°C above the pre-industrial level.
Although the international community is confidently declaring their emission cuts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level, recent data show that such optimistic targets are not on the table anymore. The UN’s recent report on the commitments of the Paris Agreement show warming of about 2.5°C by the end of the century.
Although no region in the world is immune to the effects of climate change, some areas are disproportionately vulnerable. Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, and small island nations in the Pacific, are facing the most devastating climate change impacts, despite their relatively low contributions to global GHG emissions.
Taiwan stands out with its socioeconomic, political and environmental conditions. It is an island nation in the Pacific, diplomatically isolated and crucial to the global high-tech supply chain.
Although Taiwan contributes about 0.72 percent of global GHG emissions, Taiwan is the fifth-largest annual emitter in the Pacific region — 11.05 tonnes per capita — after Brunei, Australia, South Korea and Russia.
Taiwan ranked high in the list for a few reasons.
One is that Taiwan does not have adequate natural resources to meet its energy demand. Bureau of Energy data show that 91.34 percent of energy in Taiwan last year was generated by imported coal, oil and natural gas, which constitute the largest share of Taiwan’s GHG emissions. Only 2.21 percent of that energy last year was produced indigenously.
According to the Global Wind Energy Council, Taiwan has the second-largest market in offshore wind farms in Asia after China, but the share of renewable energy resources in Taiwan’s energy generation is minimal, and behind that of Japan and South Korea.
The council’s analysis showed that among 26 developed economies, Taiwan’s renewable energy surpassed only that of Israel, Puerto Rico, Singapore and Macau.
A second factor is that Taiwan’s industry mainly comprises energy-intensive sectors such as petrochemicals, heavy metals, high-tech semiconductors and electronic parts. Due to its industrial characteristics, Taiwan’s economic growth is environmentally costly.
A Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics report showed that from 1960 to last year, Taiwan had a 340-fold increase in GDP, whereas its GHG emissions increased by 23 times.
Meanwhile, developed economies in the EU cut GHG emissions while growing GDP throughout the same period.
Taiwan falls below China, Hong Kong and Japan in Asian rankings, with only South Korea faring worse with a 46-fold increase in GHG emissions. The environmental cost of Taiwan’s economic development has been massive.
However, Taiwan’s changing demographic, economic and industrial characteristics should pave the way to reduced energy demands, and have positive implications for overall GHG emissions.
Taiwan also makes efforts at the governmental level to curb GHG emissions. These efforts date back to 1998. In the wake of the Kyoto Protocol, government departments agreed to work on a joint plan. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Administration submitted a draft bill to regulate emissions, which failed to succeed due to carbon pricing provisions.
Over the next nine years, there were no significant steps taken to cut emissions. Prior to the COP21 conference in Paris in 2015, the administration submitted another strategy to cut emissions. It set a target to cut 50 percent of Taiwan’s GHG emissions by 2050. The plan was enacted in the same year as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act (溫室氣體減量及管理法) and provided a legislative basis for mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Despite these promising efforts, Taiwan’s commitments were far from adequate compared with those of other developed nations. For example, Japan and the EU had set zero-emission goals for 2050, whereas China said it is due to be carbon-free by 2060.
Therefore, the government underlined that these targets must be updated according to contemporary conditions. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) last year said that the government is working on new emissions targets, while Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) in August last year said that Taiwan would follow 130 other countries in efforts to go carbon-free by 2050.
There are several critical points hindering Taiwan’s climate strategy. Foremost is excessively cheap energy and water, with building codes being far from green standards. This does not encourage people to conserve energy.
Inexpensive water is also a crucial factor in the agricultural sector’s hesitation to switch to modern farming and irrigation methods. Laws and regulations as well do not permit electricity prices to rise by more than 3 percent for households. Thus, a highly effective and widely used method — carbon pricing — cannot be applied in Taiwan effectively.
Another critical point stems from an export-led economic model. Industries that are highly profitable while being carbon-intensive, along with the efforts of strong interest groups, lower environmental priorities in favor of monetary benefits.
In 2006, an early draft bill that included carbon pricing was harshly criticized by small and medium-sized enterprises for this reason, and postponed concrete steps from being taken for nine years.
A third factor contributing to Taiwan’s high emissions has been its diplomatic isolation since 1971. Formal representation of Taiwan in international climate summits and conferences is limited to the presence of local non-governmental organizations. This low-level participation in climate conferences and meetings does not attract media coverage and results in low public awareness. In return, the government does not receive adequate pressure to take concrete actions against climate change.
Finally, drought as a primary indicator of global warming does reach Taiwanese as it does in other countries. As a subtropical island, Taiwan experiences droughts and water shortages only every few years. Rainy seasons follow, erasing memories of the dry spells. Therefore, droughts are often perceived as a temporary phenomenon.
However, climate awareness in Taiwan is on the rise. A 2020 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 76 percent of Taiwanese are in favor of environmental protection at the cost of slowing economic growth, and 78 percent said that they have been experiencing climate change in profound ways, with 60 percent saying the government is not doing enough to mitigate its effects.
Nevertheless, daily consumption patterns and trends indicate that Taiwan has miles to go to create adequate awareness of environmental protection measures and climate change impacts.
Harun Talha Ayanoglu is a doctoral candidate at National Chengchi University and a Taiwan Center for Security Studies research assistant.
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