Economic powerhouse Taiwan has made ‘going green’ a national priority

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metzlerBy John J. Metzler

NEW YORK — Taiwan’s socio/economic success story is world renowned.  Yet an unfortunate byproduct of Taiwan’s rapid industrial development from the 1960’s through 1980’s involved considerable amounts of air and water pollution.  Taiwan’s next challenge strives to create a cleaner environment by widespread policies of going green.

In an exclusive interview with, Dr. Lee Ying-yuan, Taiwan’s Minister of the Environmental Protection Agency, overviewed the hurdles facing the New Hampshire sized island in the aftermath of breakneck economic growth.

Taipei, Taiwan.

Minister Lee, a Harvard graduate with a PhD from University of North Carolina, was in New York to present the Taipei government’s voluntary Report Card on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) to a symposium of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law and the Global Island Partnership.

So when did air pollution issues become a civic and governmental priority?

“Well in fact the setup of the EPA now 30 years ago was the first step,” Lee said. “It became a cabinet level agency. We put emphasis on controlling all kinds of pollution.  Air quality now is actually quite good.”

Having first visited the island in the 1970’s this writer vividly recalled the dark gray smog and murky haze in Taipei, the capital city, which is surrounded by mountains.

“Usually air quality in the summer is quite good,” Lee said.  “In the winter outside pollutants from Mainland China consist of about one third of pollution.  We now have 14 measures for cutting pollution; seven measures on the industrial side, and seven on the transportation side.”

He added that tough pollution controls are enforced, but the government subsidizes small factories to switch to new boilers replacing the old ones.

“In fact, 40-50 percent of the power plants use coal.  In other cases, they use heavy oil with high sulfate levels.  We would like to switch to LNG for example.  Right now we rely on about 54 percent coal energy.  By 2025 we will cut that to 30 percent.”

The EPA budget is $1.2 billion to combat air pollution. The private sector is also working to replace old boilers.

Phasing out the island’s nuclear power industry is also a government priority, Lee stressed.

“By 2025 we are going to terminate nuclear power.  Now nuclear produces about ten percent of energy.”  When pressed whether Taiwan can reach the goal, he was emphatic.

“We are determined!  The whole country has national consensus to terminate nuclear plants.  Because of the accident in Japan, and the aftermath of Fukushima in 2011.  Everyone agrees it’s about time to terminate.”

“In fact a new nuclear plant, the Fourth plant has not even opened, but we are not going to do so. If you see the disaster in Japan you know the danger.”

“Germany is phasing out nuclear power,” Lee noted.

“Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is a physicist.  She originally asked the country to prolong the lifespan of their old nuclear plants. But after the Japanese accident she said it is time to terminate.”

Practically speaking which are the biggest polluting challenges?

“Heavy truck traffic pollutes,” Lee granted. “Some vehicles are 30 years old and have high emissions.”

Old motorcycles are a particular problem.  One million out of 15 million shall be replaced each year.  Two stroke engine models are big polluters. We take the old motorcycle and people can buy a new electric model.”

Is this mandatory?  “No, voluntary,” Lee said. “But the subsidy is higher than the value. This gives an incentive.”  Given that the Rapid Transit system in Taipei is quite convenient, the density of motorcycles is declining.

Equally, older diesel trucks are being culled from the traffic. Diesel engines come in five categories/stages.  “We are replacing stage one and two to new engines. We encourage enterprises to use modern stage four and five diesel engines. We add a filter for stage three diesel trucks. We get old ones off  the road. Companies are encouraged use modern stage four and five engines. ”

How about greenhouse gasses in Taiwan? “Using 2005 as the base line, we cut greenhouse gasses by 1.32 percent,” Lee said.  “By 2020 we expect up to 2 percent.  From 2005 to 2025 we are going to cut 20 percent.”

President Tsai Ing-wen of the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) emphasized this challenge in her inaugural speech last year. She stressed, “We cannot sacrifice the environment to pursue economic growth.”

“If you look at the wider mandate of the 17 SDG’s you see real progress. For example SDG 2 calls for zero hunger. Taiwan has zero hunger.  SDG 3 Health and well being; Taiwan’s Health care is world renown. One of best in the world.”

Lee cited Business Insider magazine which lauds Taiwan’s quality of life as #1 for expatriates.

“With the SDG’s, Taiwan is going beyond the standards.   We try to use the Swedish standard.  Gender for example: We have 38 percent  Females in the Legislature.  Germany has 39 percent .  And we have a female President Tsai Ing-wen too.”

SDG 13 Climate action; By 2020 Greenhouse gas will be cut 2 percent.

Importantly Taiwan is following UN goals and benchmarks despite not being a formal member,

since the Beijing communists assumed the China seat in 1971.

As Lee laments, “Our 23 million people have been excluded but want to be good global citizens.  We follow international standards.  Our environment policies are very close to those of the EU states.”

In terms of education and economic development Taiwan’s standards are globally respected.  Yet the Taipei government still extends a helping hand to its dwindling diplomatic allies in the Pacific and Central America.  The Minister stated, “We provide scholarship for 550 students from 39 countries (undergraduate, graduate and PhD).   Many are from Central America.  We also have agricultural assistance teams in El Salvador to help with Fish farming of Tilapia.  In Belize, we have trained special medical teams for Kidney analysis. “

Do you have any contacts with the USA’s EPA?

In 2014 Taiwan’s EPA cooperated with the U.S. EPA to launch the International Environmental Partnership gathering data on air and water pollution. “We cooperate with the EPA.  And also help Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  We work with U.S. NASA and NOAA and have a monitoring station on Jade Mountain (Alishan) to monitor air quality.”

Despite Taiwan’s laudable Environmental protection efforts, the island falls victim to high altitude pollution flows as well as sea garbage from the Mainland.  As an island, 80 miles off the China coast, 40 percent of Taiwan’s PM 2.5 (atmospheric dust particle pollution) comes from overseas via prevailing winds.

Mainland China faces massive levels of air, water and soil pollution.

From 2005 there was a cross straits dialogue between Taiwan’s EPA and its Beijing counterpart.  Minister Lee adds, “In the past we had serious exchanges between both sides. Official dialogue. They have been terminated.  Now the garbage flows from Fukien to Quemoy and to the mid-Taiwan straits.  We have to clean up the seashore and beach.”

What other steps are being taken to make a Greener Taiwan?  The Minister stated the government wants to limit the garbage from plastic bags by making them less available without cost; “We will reduce 1.8 billion plastic bags a year in Taiwan.  From next year 14 types of stores will not give a plastic bag for small things.”

Yet the Minister asserted his country will not follow a draconian Kenya-style total plastic bag ban.

And how do the EPA’s multifaceted measures fit into the wider scope of national security?

“We think of national security in an abstract way.  Military forces and diplomatic standing.  But there is more than that.  We want to make Taiwan the best place to live so our people become proud of the land and are willing to fight for her.  A better, cleaner environment in this beautiful island Formosa, makes people feel proud, brings more unity, and that is part of security too.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]