The days between Christmas and New Year’s offer the opportunity to take a step back and put the bigger picture into view.
Maybe the expectation to reach people in a contemplative mood affected the Anthropocene Working Group’s decision to schedule a panel on Saturday before Christmas to more narrowly define the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch defined by a human-induced “great acceleration” of processes that leave an imprint on the planet. The New York Times reported on the event by the international academic group.
What is the role of Taiwan, a nation of 0.3 percent of the world’s population and 0.007 percent of its landmass, when looked upon through a lens that puts a very large frame of reference into view?
Taiwan’s greatest recent contribution to the world might be its high-tech products, such as semiconductors powering essential machinery worldwide. It has become a high-income country, like many others in Asia, a trend economists describe as a long-term eastward shift of global wealth.
Taiwan’s GDP per capita ranked 27th worldwide last year, IMF data showed. Its average monthly wage was US$1,398 in August, which would rank slightly lower, at 35th, if Taiwan were included in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data sets.
Its carbon emissions of 11.72 tonnes per capita per year, probably its longest-lasting contribution to the Anthropocene, ranked 21st, according to Worldometers.
Lowest in that ranking are mostly poorer countries, such as Mali and Somalia. Some developed economies in Europe, such as Sweden (78th), also rank below Taiwan, although their wealth is in part generated using high-tech hardware made in Asia, the production of which is usually not factored into their carbon footprint.
However, the general trend is clear: The wealthier a population, the more carbon it emits. Extreme examples of billionaires’ vanity projects, such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ joyride on a rocket to space last year, are a case in point — and unfortunately one that might make the average person wonder why they should even try to reduce their carbon footprint.
Without finding a sufficient answer to the “why should I?” question, Taiwanese, or anyone who feels connected to Taiwan, might instead pride themselves on the role the nation’s industry, despite being a large emitter, plays in the global shift to a low-emissions future, with “green” solutions powered by sophisticated chips made in Taiwan.
However, doing good on a larger scale and in the longer term does not outweigh doing less so individually and immediately. Taiwanese chips can power high-tech solutions seeking to keep Earth hospitable, but also harmful vanity projects.
The eastward shift of wealth, if it continues to materialize, adds another dimension to the problem. People switching from gasoline-powered scooters and taking public transportation on large electrical vehicles that accommodate heavy, resource-intensive batteries would not alleviate the burden on the planet. The same is true for people moving to lavish, much more resource-heavy condominiums, including those advertised as “sustainable.”
People need to be aware that all consumer goods — the Christmas present for a loved one or the plastic bag that makes the way home from the breakfast shop more convenient — contribute to their, and Taiwan’s, carbon footprint. Taiwanese should follow the global trend and ask themselves whether it is in any case worth it; for the Christmas present, something useful at best, the answer might be yes, for the plastic bag it might be no.
Taiwan must find a way to grow its economy without increasing its output of goods that are not worth it by Anthropocene standards.
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