As over 150 nations meet for the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP21) climate talks in Paris this week, all eyes are on the United States and China. Many forget about Taiwan, a subtropical island intensely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change that will not be present around the negotiating table. The impact of being effectively left out of the international dialogue on climate change has repercussions on the politics and lives of the 23 million people of Taiwan, as well as the international community.
Located off the southeastern coast of mainland China, Taiwan is hit by an average of four typhoons per year. Typhoon Morakot in 2009 was particularly devastating, killing over 500 people with three meters of rainfall within four days. “The weather type has changed in the past 20 years,” Eugene Chien of the Taiwan Institute for Sustainable Energy told a group of international reporters visiting the NGO as part of a Taiwanese government-organized delegation to boost awareness of Taiwan’s green initiatives in the lead up to Paris.
In addition to heavier rainfalls, stronger typhoons, and vulnerabilities to coastal flooding, Taiwan’s National Weather Bureau has also reported longer dry seasons and a rise in average temperatures by 1.6 degrees Celsius since 1901 — higher than the global average. “All the climate changes show up in Taiwan so we must be prepared for the climate change influence,” says Chien.
Though not a member of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Taiwan still declared its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) in the lead up to the Paris climate talks. Taiwan’s greenhouse gas reduction goal aims to reduce emissions by 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Equivalent to a 50 percent reduction from 2030 business-as-usual levels, the target is ambitious compared to its economic competitor South Korea’s goal of a 37 percent cut in business-as-usual emissions. However, Taiwan was not allowed to submit its INDC due to complications over its recognition as a country. Taiwan has not been a member of the United Nations since 1971, when the People’s Republic of China took over China’s seat in the international body.
“Taiwan’s failure to participate on climate change in the international arena is a big issue,” said Yeh Junrong, a professor of environmental law at National Taiwan University who helped draft Taiwan’s recent bill on greenhouse gas emissions. Taiwan is only allowed to participate in peripheral events as a UNFCCC NGO observer.
Being left out of the international discussion on climate change has had its effect on domestic politics. “In the area of climate change Taiwan needs more international linkage,” said Yeh, adding that “being a part of international discussions forces the government and different departments to think deeper about climate change.” While Yeh acknowledged the positive step in creating an emission reductions target for the UNFCCC in spite of not being required to set one, he noted that the topic of carbon reductions had yet to make a cabinet level meeting.
Earlier this year, in June, Taiwan’s government passed a Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act, setting out a goal to cut carbon emissions by 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2050, adding new regulation on greenhouse gasses, and moving the economy towards a domestic carbon market. Though the Green House Gas Emission and Reduction Act did make it past a bipartisan vote, Yeh pointed out that it only passed after nine years of sitting on legislative sidelines. He also voiced his opinion that the primary reason the act finally passed was so that Taiwan could bolster its case for official observer status at the climate talks in Paris rather than out of true political will to tackle climate change.
“Compared to environmental issues, the government does not recognize climate change as a serious problem,” said Yeh. He noted that Taiwan’s success in implementing environmental policies, cleaning up once smog-filled skies and polluted waterways, was largely domestically driven and tied to Taiwan’s process of democratization. However, “climate does not provide the same momentum for change,” said Yeh, citing the greater need for international pressure and connection.
Yeh also commented on how frequent elections and party turnover prevented the government from being held accountable for long term commitments. Even without international linkages to hold Taiwan accountable, Yeh hopes to see a concrete three-year mitigation strategy as well as a more holistic approach to emissions reductions and adaptation strategies that incorporates the energy sector and industrial structure. “The true test will be in the follow up to Paris,” he said.
Beyond shaping domestic politics on climate change, Taiwan’s push to gain observer status in the UNFCCC is rooted in deeper insecurities. In addition to natural disasters, Taiwan faces the risk of being isolated from the international community, particularly stymieing in an era of connectivity and global trade. Since joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2002, in which the Taiwanese economy benefited immensely from reduced tariffs, Taiwan has only pulled off a handful of Free Trade Agreements due to the repercussions trade partners face from mainland China over recognizing Taiwan. Taiwan has also not been granted membership to the current Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, though it is actively courting participation.
In an economy where nearly 30 percent of economic output is composed of exports, being left out of the global network hits Taiwan hard. For the past decade Taiwan’s wages have stagnated and its projected economic growth sits at 1.06 percent this year. Exclusion from trade pacts not only puts Taiwanese exports at a disadvantage – especially given the tightly woven nature of the Asian production assembly line – it also means that Taiwan has not been compelled to take on the domestic reforms that could increase Taiwan’s competitiveness, such as opening its services sector to greater competition and investment.
Despite the economic challenges that Taiwan faces, Yeh also emphasized Taiwan’s potential. “The world should not overlook Taiwan’s contributions to international trade and [its] potential to be a part of the global solution on climate change,” said Yeh who sees innovation in the climate change arena as part of Taiwan’s growth solution.
“Trade can be a double dividend that can help the economy and environment as well,” said Shih-Fang Lo, Supervisor of Taiwan’s Green Trade Project Office, an office within Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs designed to promote Taiwan’s green exports, worth 14 percent of Taiwan’s total exports. Taiwan’s contributions include its role as the second largest global producer of solar cells by value added and as one of the top manufacturing countries for LED lighting. In addition, Taiwan has won R&D 100 Awards for technologies like its High-Efficiency Calcium Looping Technology which captures carbon dioxide for microalgae cultivation farms. It also boasts one of the most efficient recycling systems in the world, with a municipal waste recycling rate above the Netherlands, the U.K., and the United States.
Yeh also noted Taiwan’s influence on neighboring mainland China. “They learn from Taiwan,” said Yeh, “when China’s looking for an international example for regulations on air quality or recycling they look to Taiwan… it’s already in Chinese.”
Though it is too late for Taiwan to be included in this round of climate change dialogues, Yeh remains optimistic about the future. With a presidential election set for January 2016 and a likely turnover from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Yeh hopes there will be more concrete action on climate change. However, he also added, “I place my hopes on society, not a leader.”
Yeh maintains that the momentum for climate change policy will need to develop domestically. “I really think that we can provide a good example of how a medium sized economy can transform and turn negatives of climate change into positives because we’ve learned how to deal with this issue.” In the meantime, the world will have to decide whether or not Taiwan and its experiences will be included in the next round of international climate talks.
Michelle Winglee formerly researched U.S.-China economic relations at a Washington DC-based think tank. She is currently studying at Taiwan National University’s International Chinese Language Program.