The Politics and Policies of Climate Change in Taiwan

Global temperature and atmospheric CO2 accumulation trends (Source: IPPC AR5 and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)
Global temperature and atmospheric CO2 accumulation trends (Source: IPPC AR5 and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)

Denied participation in the United Nations and related organizations and treaties, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Taiwan is not bound by any international agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Nevertheless, Taiwan has not only publicly declared its intention to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Accord, the latest global agreement to mitigate climate change, but has gone even further by codifying its GHG reduction commitment into domestic law.

The 195 signatories to the Paris Accord, the successor international treaty to the Kyoto Protocol which is set to expire in 2020, pledge to work toward keeping the increase in average global temperatures to below two degrees Celsius – and ideally below 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve this goal, the Accord requires its members to submit, among other items, a detailed National Inventory Report on their GHG emissions, overall and by industry sector, as well as an emissions reduction plan called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDC).

Diplomatically isolated, Taiwan has long aspired to participate in the United Nations and its affiliated organizations, including the UNFCCC, and since 2008 has sent representatives – though as observers rather than delegates – to every Conference of the Parties (COP), as the international forums on climate change agreements are called. At last year’s forum at which the Paris Accord was hammered out, Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Wei Kuo-yen and other senior officials attended and were able to give presentations, but only as guests of other countries or NGOs.

Still, Taiwan has set its own ambitious INDC goals to demonstrate its good will as an “earth citizen” to “contribute to fighting climate change issues,” the EPA said in written correspondence to TOPICS. Taiwan has promised by 2030 to cut emissions by 50% from that year’s projected Business as Usual (BAU) level – the level that would occur if no reduction efforts are made. With energy demand continuing to trend upwards, Taiwan’s 2030 BAU is calculated at 428 million tons of GHG, compared to the 2014 total of 277.2 million tons. Accordingly, Taiwan aims to emit only 214 million tons of GHG by 2030 – a 25% decrease from the current volume.

Taiwan has good reasons to support efforts to mitigate climate change. For one, global climate change is expected to have an especially strong impact on islands in the Western Pacific/East Asia region, including Taiwan (see accompanying story)

Additionally, while Taiwan’s 2014 emissions accounted for only 0.55% of the global total of 35.7 billion tons, Taiwan’s per capita emissions – at 11.8 tons annually – are relatively high. By comparison, the figure is only 7.6 tons for China and 10.1 tons for Japan. Taiwan has large footprints in several energy-intensive industries, including steel, petrochemicals, and semiconductors, which contribute to higher per capita emissions. Business leaders worry that one day Taiwan might face censure or carbon tariffs on exports due to its proportionately higher emissions.

A related goal is to earn Taiwan greater integration into international climate change organizations, especially UNFCCC. “When you are a nation like Taiwan without international recognition, you probably have to build good will through the international system as Taiwan has done in many areas such as international health,” explains Stacy Closson, a Fulbright Senior Scholar and visiting professor from the University of Kentucky, now teaching at National Chengchi University. “Not being a member of WHO [World Health Organization], for example, didn’t prevent Taiwan from contributing very significantly to helping gain control over the SARS epidemic [in 2003] or helping to stop the Ebola epidemic. They are showing a good will already in international health. In the climate area, Taiwan is going to have to take a similar approach.”

2014 Annual Global Emissions (Million metric tons) (Source: Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research)
2014 Annual Global Emissions (Million metric tons)) (Source: Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research)

Closson, an expert in the arena of international climate change negotiations, cites a number of ways in which Taiwan might gain greater integration into international accords. Island nations, indigenous peoples, and forestry organizations all command considerable influence at COP forums and “are all places where Taiwan should play an active role.”

Unfortunately, Closson doubts that even Taiwan’s best efforts will win it full membership at the COP table, noting China’s perpetual objections. China is by far the world largest polluter, spewing some 10.5 billion tons of GHG emissions into the atmosphere every year, nearly double the 5.3 billion tons of the United States. Under the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States has not joined, other large polluters such as China and India were exempted from binding commitments to GHG reductions. As a result, under Kyoto, global emissions have actually increased dramatically, from 25 billion tons in 1990 to around 35 billion tons in 2014.

Getting all the major players together in the Paris Accord was a major triumph, and Closson notes that the UNFCCC is unlikely to risk upsetting the delicate balance to include Taiwan. “You cannot do something through the UNFCCC that alienates the world’s largest emitter,” she says. “The truth of the matter is that Taiwan has important contributions to make, but will likely never be a [UNFCCC] member.”

Being outside the Accord means that Taiwan will not be subject to the same emissions monitoring and audits as signatories, but it also won’t be eligible for the technical support and consulting promised by the UNFCCC as part of the Paris Accord to help with “mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity-building.”

Putting it into law

Necessarily going it alone, Taiwan has written its targets into domestic law. Last year the Legislative Yuan passed the Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act (GGRMA), “the first law to authorize the government in coping with climate change,” notes the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Management Office. More stringent than the INDC, the law commits the island to reducing GHG emissions by 50% from 2005’s emissions levels by 2050. Taiwan’s emissions peaked in 2007 at a net of 277 million tons (297 in total, offset by its extensive forests that serve as carbon sinks), and the 2005 numbers were nearly as high at 268 million tons. If the GGRMA goals are to be met, emissions in 2050 will need to be just 134 million tons.

Both the INDC and the GGRMA are highly ambitious goals, and Taiwan’s isolation in the global political sphere may deprive it of technological and other support needed to help reach them. On the other hand, Taiwan’s own political environment might be an even bigger obstacle.

For the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which following the recent elections will hold both the presidency and a majority in the legislature for the first time, opposition to nuclear power is a core belief. President-elect Tsai Ing-wen has promised to decommission Taiwan’s six existing nuclear power units at the end of their current licensing periods, while permanently shuttering the almost-completed Longmen Nuclear Power Plant (NPP4) and making Taiwan “nuclear free” by 2025. The conundrum is that nuclear energy is a “clean” fuel in terms of carbon emissions. How to replace the 40 billion kWh that nuclear plants currently generate per year – accounting for some 19% of Taiwan’s total power supply – while still meeting the emission-reduction goals?

To replace this power, the DPP promises to roll out extensive renewable energy installations, including 20 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacity alone. But questions remain as to whether sufficient renewable energy can be generated to fill the gap, or whether a nuclear-free Taiwan would need to rely on GHG-producing fossil fuels.

Taiwan’s energy demand and attendant emissions have risen more or less in tandem with GDP growth. The EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, which covers the period from 1990 to 2013, shows that emissions rose an average of 2.94% annually, generally tracking economic growth. The administration of incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou set out to “decouple” emissions from economic growth by reducing energy intensity – the amount of energy needed to generate a unit of economic activity. According to data from the Bureau of Energy (BOE) under the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), Taiwan’s energy intensity has in fact declined some 20% under the Ma administration. Emissions rose only 0.89% in 2013, despite Taiwan recording over 2.4% GDP growth.

Still, both energy consumption and emissions continue to grow, even if at a slower pace, making steep reductions very difficult. L.C. Chen, retired chairman of Gibsin Engineers, the firm that built many of Taiwan’s coal-fired power plants, and longstanding gadfly to the environmental movement, regards the whole notion of Taiwan reducing its emissions so much, so quickly without using nuclear energy and without causing devastating economic impact as farcical.

With coal powering 38% of Taiwan’s power sector, electricity generation is responsible for more than 88% of Taiwan’s GHG emissions. Consequently, the energy mix in the power sector will be crucial to whether Taiwan achieves, or misses, its GHG emissions reduction goals.

Chen maps out various scenarios based on the different energy plans offered by the current government and the DPP, and factoring in a generalized rise of 1.5% in energy demand from 2015 to 2030. For example, the current government’s plan for 17.25 gigawatts (GW) of installed renewable power capacity by 2030 (equivalent to 42% of Taiwan’s current installed capacity of 40GW), with all nuclear power retired by 2025, would result in emissions actually rising to 310 million tons by 2030. The DPP plan, with its heavier weighting on renewables and with the nuclear power plants likewise retired, would do better – but not by much – with emissions in 2030 at 300 million tons.

Yet another scenario would encompass the DPP plan for extensive renewable power deployment, coupled with full deployment of all nuclear power plants, including the controversial and unfinished Longmen facility. Even this scenario, stabilizing Taiwan’s emissions at some 250 million tons, would fall far short of the 214 million ton goal set in the INDC. Chen considers that his calculations are actually conservative, as he doesn’t factor in potential increases in emissions from transportation and industry.

Technological changes

The DPP rejects these calculations as wrongheaded on a number of fronts. First, it forecasts dramatic energy consumption savings of 20% between now and 2025 in line with technological advances such as more efficient machinery in Taiwan’s factories, as well as strategic pricing and smart meters to monitor electricity usage. The party also advocates greater use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and supercritical coal plants as ways to obtain equal power generation with less emissions.

The EPA appears to agree. Industry leaders often complain that “without nuclear and with such stringent reduction requirements, how can we survive?” says Chien Hui-chen, executive director of the EPA’s GHG Reduction Management Office. “But we think that new technologies and the new Green Deal ill change their thinking.”

“It’s not our purpose to limit our industry,” she says. “Our purpose is to protect our environment, the voice of society, and most important, our international competitiveness. If our industry cannot see the future vision, how can they survive?”

Besides stipulating increasingly tighter emissions reduction targets in five-year increments, the GGRMA also calls for the government to “actively assist and encourage industries and businesses to adopt low carbon technologies,” the EPA said in written correspondence. “This will help develop green industries and technologies and create green economy and employment opportunities.” The proposed assistance includes helping businesses to inventory their emissions and devise a reduction plan, and providing the funding for companies to make the necessary investments. Once performance standards are established, the next step will be for Taiwan to establish a cap-and-trade carbon emissions trading scheme.

Cap and trade is a market-based policy approach to control emissions from a large group of polluters. First, an overall cap – the maximum allowable amount of emissions over a set period of time – is established. The scheme then divvies up the amount of the cap among emissions sources such as factories and power plants. Sources that exceed the allowance would face heavy fines unless they make up the difference by buying “credits” from other sources that have unused portions of their allowance to spare. The caps are gradually tightened over time, spurring emitters to either spend money to buy additional credits or to increase investment in clean, low-carbon technologies.

Chien says that the pressure from emissions performance standards and cap-and-trade carbon trading schemes will actually benefit Taiwan’s industry. “If we cannot give them pressure to reduce emissions, then they don’t need to make the necessary investments,” she observes. “But that won’t be good for them. They know it, but they cannot make the investments without pressure.”

The cap-and-trade scheme brings another potential advantage: membership in regional emissions trading schemes. While the EU Emissions Trading System is the world’s largest such scheme, smaller regional systems are being developed in China, North America, and other locations. The possible inclusion of Australia in the EU system demonstrates that geographic proximity need not be a criterion for membership. And as the schemes are market based, rather than treaty based, the chances for Taiwan to join are higher. In its plan for carbon reduction in line with the Paris Accord, the government makes a point of stating that “future reduction potential can benefit from being involved in the international market mechanism.”

So far the law remains big on ambition but short on specifics, with no regulations yet drafted on how to achieve its goals, although Chien says these are coming. “The most important thing is that we have the national goal,” she notes. “The goal is set. Now we need to have the roadmap.”

Whether Taiwan will be able to meet the competing goals of GHG emissions reduction and elimination of nuclear power remains to be seen. But without doubt, the issues are receiving more and more public attention.