Recently Taiwan Business TOPICS magazine sat down with Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Lee Ying-yuan to discuss the state of Taiwan’s environmental health. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation, supplemented with written replies from the EPA.
What do you consider to be the biggest environmental challenges that Taiwan is currently facing?
For Taiwan per se, combatting air pollution is the first priority. Following that is introducing and putting into practice the concept of “circular economy” (in which waste products in one industry become resources in another). For example, we shouldn’t treat garbage as just garbage to be thrown away: it is an energy source, it is a resource. Even food waste is something that we usually dump but it can also be transformed into gases that can be used for energy.
In addition, Taiwan is a member of the global village, and combatting climate change is one of the EPA’s top priorities. It’s not something that can be accomplished in one year or even 10 years. Rather it’s a long-term plan, in contrast to air pollution, which is an everyday fight.
Locally, fighting air pollution and promoting the circular economy are the priorities, and now they are gaining momentum. So many enterprises are putting the circular economy into practice. For example, many of Taiwan’s top enterprises are reusing water. Some even emphasize that each drop of water gets reused seven times.
Why has the issue of air pollution recently been such a hot topic when everyone seems to agree that the air quality is improving?
Public awareness and knowledge about air pollution has increased a lot. Previously people didn’t understand what PM2.5 stands for, and five years ago it wasn’t an issue. But now people understand. And we have always had very strong movement of environmental NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. We are a democracy and are proud of it. I really appreciate their efforts and involvement in all kinds of actions to combat air pollution, including parades and demonstrations.
Air quality has really improved, with most major pollutants down significantly. In Taipei, most of the time the air quality is good, but in the south it’s often bad for those who are sensitive, because in the winter the wind blows from north to south, causing all kinds of pollutants to blow to the south and accumulate in Kaohsiung. So even though the situation has improved, many people still feel dissatisfied. But compared to many other countries we are still okay.
As Taiwan rolls out its “Energy Transformation” plans, even environmentalists are concerned that the 2025 deadline for both eliminating nuclear power and transforming the energy system is arbitrary and too rushed and will result in questionable decision-making that could have negative impacts on the local environment.
First, the 2025 deadline is not arbitrary. The lifetime of the last reactor in Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant 3 (NPP3) will end in 2025 – that’s why the year was chosen.
Technically, their licensures could be extended, but because of the Fukushima incident – we are so close to Japan and our geological condition is so similar to Japan, and we suffer these kinds of earthquakes from time to time – we won’t do that. Just last week we experienced a very unusual earthquake right here in Taipei, so you cannot predict what God will do.
Before the Fukushima incident, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, asked the parliament to extend the lifetime of the nuclear power plants in Germany, but after Fukushima she reversed her own decision. She said Japanese technology is as good as ours, so if that kind of incident can occur in Japan, it means that it can also occur in Germany. We adopted the same logic. So the decision is not arbitrary.
But yes, we do have some pressure. As the government in power, it’s a question of whether you are a responsible government or not. If something like Fukushima were to occur in Taiwan, there is no survival strategy at all because Taipei is so close to two of the three nuclear power plants. If such an incident were to occur here, more than 10 million people would need to be evacuated – more than half the population would have to move to the south. The consequences would be so severe and so non-reversible that even President Ma, whose party supported nuclear energy for more than 20 years, had to make the very difficult decision to terminate nuclear power plant 4.
With the Jinshan nuclear power plant (NPP1) fully shut down years ahead of schedule, and only one reactor in the Kuosheng plant (NPP2) in operation, is Taiwan neglecting its greenhouse gas reduction goals by relying on dirty coal-fired power to make up the shortfall in power generation?
In wintertime, the electricity demand is only about 75% of the summertime demand, so in wintertime we are really not using that much coal.
However, I cannot rebut that question and it’s because of the politics in the legislature. Yes, it’s true they did have some minor issues with the nuclear power plants, resulting in reactors being shut down. In such a huge power plant from time to time you have some sort of defect, and you have to stop operations to check and then repair and re-operate. But the legislature made a resolution that if you want to re-operate the nuclear power plant, you must get my permission.
It’s not legally binding but usually you would like to comply, just as the U.S. Congress passes many resolutions. It shows the will of the Congress. We will try to comply until there is no other way. As both Premier Lai and Premier Lin before him said: to re-operate NPP1 and NPP2 would be the last resort in case of energy shortage.
We have a roadmap to reduce energy consumption by 2% by 2020, and after we passed the Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act in 2015, we started all kinds of actions. We have already constructed quite a comprehensive legal framework and we are close to having it approved. You need all sorts of regulations and rules determining what contribution or responsibility each sector would bear, including the transportation, manufacturing, energy, agriculture, residential, and commercial sectors. All of those have now been set up and approved by the Executive Yuan at the end of last year. Now we have to hold public hearings and invite different departments and ministries from across the government – and also the NGOs – to participate. But we’ve reached a consensus on greenhouse-gas reduction, and by 2020 we aim for a 2% reduction, 2025 a 10% reduction, by 2030 a 20% reduction, and by 2050 a 50% reduction, compared to 2005 emissions levels.
Are the goals for energy transformation (20% power generation from renewables, 50% from natural gas, 30% from coal) realistic? Does Taiwan have the political will to see them through?
First, 20% power generation from renewables is not too high a goal, compared to what Germany or Denmark has achieved. But yes, it’s quite an ambitious project. We have learned so much from what the Germans and Danes have done, and the Copenhagen Infrastructure Project (CIP) has shared its experience. They can help us shorten the timeframe.
In terms of political will, the President and the Premier from day one have made this a national policy, so we are moving forward forcefully. President Tsai just took office only two years ago, but already so many things are happening. So we have the political will, though certainly we always have to review what we can do to improve the process, whether in terms of coordination among the ministries or to revise the laws and regulations. The Premier is in charge, and the Ministry of Economic Affairs will be heavily involved, as will the Ministry of Science and Technology.
The environmental impact assessment (EIA) process is often considered an obstacle to Taiwan’s larger plans for energy transformation. How have you streamlined the EIA process without losing its mandate to protect the environment from injury?
The full EIA committee consists of 21 members from the environmental NGOs, academics, experts, and business and government members. For each project we assign an expert task force of only three to five experts in the relevant field. In the past, an EIA process could take three years, or five years, even seven years.
After I took the office we revised the process for this kind of expert meeting. It is now limited to meeting three times and then the proposal has to be passed to the full committee. I would advise the full committee to review the case for one year at the longest – and most of the time less.
We have clearly made progress. At the end of 2017 we approved 10.6 gigawatts of offshore wind power, and 90% of the offshore wind power projects were approved by the full EIA committee.