Taiwan: Environmental Issues
Taiwan's total commitment to economic growth over the last half century has produced one of Asia's richest economies, but this achievement has come at the price of significant environmental degradation in the country once known as "Ilha Formosa" (Beautiful Island). Taiwan's environmental problems include: air pollution; water pollution from industrial emissions and raw sewage; the contamination of drinking water supplies; trade in endangered species; and low-level radioactive waste disposal. In February 2003, a Taiwanese environmental group released a statement indicating that the country's environmental sustainability index was likely to slip from 58th to 119, making it one of the worst of the 143 countries examined.
Many of Taiwan's environmental problems can be linked to overcrowding. The country's population is nearly 23 million while the surface area is less than 14,000 square miles. This averages out to around 1,600 persons per square mile, making Taiwan among the most densely populated nations on earth. Taiwan has the highest density of factories and motor vehicles in the world. Moreover, most of the population is packed into 2,300 square kilometers of alluvial plain along the islands western coast. This area is also home to the country's 7 million animal hog rearing industry, which produces the waste equivalent of a further 30 million people. Also inhabiting the area are more than 8 million manufacturing facilities.
Taiwan's increasing prosperity and democratization have been accompanied by growing popular concern for the environment. Over the last two decades environmentalism has become a mainstream part of Taiwanese society and politics. Popular protests have already delayed or prevented a number of major infrastructure and industrial projects, including the construction of nuclear power plants and large chemical factories. Taiwan also has created an Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) to examine the environmental impact assessment documents that must accompany any potentially polluting project. Without the EPA's approval, no project can move forward.
Because of its unique diplomatic relationship with mainland China, Taiwan's official diplomatic activities and participation in multilateral bodies have been limited. Currently, the country is not a party to any major international environmental agreements, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.
Energy Use and Intensity
Per capita energy use in Taiwan is among the highest in East Asia. In 2001, Taiwan's per capita energy use totaled 181.5 million British thermal units (Btu); only Singapore was higher (399 million Btu per person) in East Asia. Due to the successful expansion of the Taiwanese economy, per capita energy use has almost tripled since 1980. Unlike many other Asian nations, Taiwan's energy usage did not decline significantly due to the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. Between 1996 and 1997, per capita usage fell by less than 1% before increasing by almost 34 million Btus over the next four years.
Energy intensity (energy consumption per dollar of GDP) in Taiwan is generally lower than the energy intensity levels of most other Asian nations. In 2001, the country consumed 10.3 thousand Btu per $1995-PPP (its highest total ever); the United States consumed 10.7 thousand Btu per $1995-PPP.* Taiwan's energy intensity has remained relatively stable over the past two decades.
Carbon Emissions and Intensity
Taiwan's per capita carbon emissions have almost tripled since 1980 and are relatively high compared to the rest of East Asia. In 2001, Taiwan emitted 3.18 metric tons of carbon per person, the country's highest level ever and almost five times the amount of per capita carbon emissions in mainland China (0.58 metric tons). Only Singapore (7.6 metric tons) had a higher level of per capita carbon emissions than Taiwan in East Asia.
Carbon intensity (the amount of carbon consumed per dollar of GDP) in Taiwan has fallen by around 5% since 1980. In 2001, carbon intensity in Taiwan measured 0.18 metric tons of carbon per thousand $1995-PPP, compared to 0.19 metric tons per thousand $1995-PPP in 1980.* This decline is largely due to an increase in the use of non-carbon-emitting technologies like nuclear and hydroelectric energy, and reductions in the use of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.
Air pollution in Taiwan is most obvious in Taipei, the country's capital and largest city. Like many other cities notorious for their air quality, Taipei is in a valley surrounded by mountains, which trap pollutants. The primary cause of urban air pollution is the large number of vehicles (mostly motorbikes and scooters) used by residents. There are more than 11 million scooters in Taiwan.
EPA has attempted to solve its motorbike problem through several initiatives. In July 1999, the EPA began issuing monetary awards to residents who report cars and motorbikes that emit unusual amounts of dark exhaust. The agency also makes use of subsidies to encourage the purchase of fuel efficient and low-emission vehicles. Motor vehicles also are subject to air pollution control (APC) fees levied by the EPA. These fees also are applied to larger emitters like factories. The government credits the APC system with helping to reduce the number of days when the country's pollution standard index score exceeded 100 from 7% of days in 1994 to 3% of days in 2001. The fees collected by the program are used in air pollution control programs throughout the country. In 2001, $58 million was collected.
Water pollution is considered a significant threat to the health of Taiwan's people as well as to the country's economy. Agricultural run-off, coastal aquaculture, industrial effluents, and domestic sewage are responsible for the pollution of coastal, surface and groundwater in Taiwan. Water pollution is most severe in areas with a high concentration of industrial activity. Much of the fault lies with Taiwan's inadequate sewer system, which covers only 10% of the country. As of mid-2002, only 59% of Taipei was connected to the sewer system.
The Taiwanese government has been trying to address the problem of water pollution.
To do so, it has placed 118 rivers under government supervision. It also has
established 294 river and stream water quality sampling stations as of 2001.
Businesses are required to meet a set of standards for effluent discharge, and
a water pollution control fee is due to start being collected by the end of
2003. Taiwan is also participating in a worldwide effort to test the quality
of its water. This scheme involves working with America's Clean Water Foundation
and the International Water Association.
Taiwan's state-owned electric power utility, Taiwan Power Company (Taipower), currently has 5,144 megawatts (MW) of nuclear generating capacity at three plants (Kuosheng and Chinshan stations in the north and Maanshan station in the south). Soon after being elected in 2000, President Chen Shui-Bian canceled plans for a fourth nuclear plant to be located 20 miles outside of Taipei. Under pressure from the opposition, in February 2001, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government overturned the cancellation, which would have cost the government $2.4 billion. As a concession to environmentalists who opposed the decision, the government agreed not to extend the operating plants' lifespans and pledged a nuclear-free Taiwan as its ultimate goal. Since the nuclear project was restarted, it has been dogged by scandals. In early 2002, inferior materials were discovered in a reactor pedestal built by a subcontractor. In March 2003, a visiting Japanese expert complained that the quality of the plant's construction was problematically low.
Taiwan is trying to use more renewable energy sources for several reasons, which include: curbing pollution; reducing dependency on imported fuel; and accommodating the Kyoto Protocol (although it is not a signatory). Two pieces of legislation have been submitted in support of greater renewable energy use. One makes Taipower responsible for building some of the planned renewable power generation facilities, forcing it to shoulder the construction of any plants that the private sector fails to build. The second amendment will force Taipower and any independent power producer companies to pay a levy on their nonrenewable (and non-LNG-fired) generation. The government also has announced that it will set aside $90 million a year to foster the development of the renewable energy and energy conservation industries.
The Energy Committee within the Ministry of Economics developed Taiwan's renewable program in the late 1990s. By 2020, the program expects renewable energy sources to provide 6,500 MW of installed capacity. Hydropower is expected to provide 2,500 MW (dams already supply 1,820 MW); wind farms will supply another 1,500 MW; and solar facilities are expected to add 1,000 MW. The remainder will come from biomass and refuse burning plants.
The project is considered highly ambitious. At present, non-hydro renewable
energy sources generate only 132 MW.
Taiwan's Environment in the 21st
Environmentalism has great popular support in Taiwan, and its influence on public policy has grown. The government has signaled its willingness to accommodate the public's wishes by confronting pollution, as symbolized by the pollution control laws as well as recent moves to cut back on the use of both disposable utensils and plastic bags. The EPA's mandate seems likely to grow stronger with time. Taiwan's previous success in high-technology sectors should be useful in developing renewable technologies. The country already appears to be at the forefront of solar technology.
Despite these factors, significant progress is not likely to be easy. Taiwan's environment has already been severely damaged, and choosing to confront these problems will be costly, both financially and politically. One possible example of the increasing difficulty involved with environmental protection may be the October 2003 decision of Hau Lung-Pin, the environment minister, to resign after the premier refused to support his wish to have the EPA's environmental audits of infrastructure projects exempted from plebiscites.
It remains difficult to forecast how current and future governments will balance the desire for further economic development with the desire for a cleaner environment.
*GDP figures are based on OECD figures using purchasing power parity (PPP)
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