The Politics of Taiwan’s Environmental Policy

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The Politics of Taiwan’s Environmental Policy

Environmental issues have primarily been caught in the contest between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps, as is the case with many political issues in Taiwan.

The Politics of Taiwan’s Environmental Policy
Credit: Flickr/ Nisa Yeh

Given Taiwan’s international marginalization, it is common for Taiwan to voluntarily pursue compliance with international standards. This has sometimes taken the form of ratifying international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, despite Taiwan’s lack of recognition by the majority of the world’s nations and lack of U.N. membership. The aim in passing such treaties seems to be to try and angle for support by voluntarily being a “good citizen” in the international community.

That being said, there has been a rather surprising lack of discussion of international conventions regarding climate change, such as the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference or the Paris Agreement. Instead, environmental issues have primarily been caught in the contestation between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps, as is the case with many political issues in Taiwan.

Indeed, environmental issues loom large in contemporary Taiwanese politics, with a referendum scheduled for next month on a number of environmental issues, but they have become framed as a referendum on the Tsai administration. Next month, voters will vote on the construction of a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal in Taoyuan and the reactivation of the No. 4 Lungmen Nuclear Reactor.

Both issues touch on not only the environment, but long-standing issues regarding energy supply in Taiwan. Taiwan experiences frequent power outages during the summer that disrupt the normal operation of society and threaten production lines for semiconductors and other industries key to Taiwan’s role in global supply chains. There are concerns that energy outages could affect national security if military facilities experience outages, though during recent outages over the summer, Taiwan’s energy grid worked as designed and maintained power for both hospital and military facilities.

Construction of the LNG terminal in Taoyuan, off the coast of Datan district, has long been opposed by local environmentalists because of the threat it poses to 7,000-year-old coral reefs in Datan. A petition to hold a national referendum on the construction of the LNG terminal only gained traction after the KMT threw its support behind the campaign, however.

This is ironic, as the LNG terminal was originally proposed by the KMT when it held political power. Indeed, the Datan LNG terminal is one of a host of issues in which the DPP and KMT have traded positions since swapping roles as the party in power and the opposition. For its part, the DPP claims that it has reduced the size of construction for the LNG terminal by 90 percent, and that the terminal is needed as part of its long-term plans to transition to renewable energy. The DPP has also offered last-minute amendments to the original construction proposal for the terminal to further reduce the size of construction.

The referendum on the LNG terminal is linked with another question that will be put to a national referendum: whether to restart Lungmen Reactor No. 4.

While environmentalists elsewhere sometimes back nuclear energy, the environmental movement in Taiwan has generally been strongly anti-nuclear. This is due to fears that Taiwan’s frequent seismic activity could lead to a nuclear disaster similar to the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. The anti-nuclear movement has also reacted against incidents in which nuclear waste disposal was foisted onto local communities without their being aware of the construction of waste disposal facilities. In the most infamous example, the majority Indigenous inhabitants of Orchid Island saw the construction of a nuclear waste disposal facility on their land with the claim that it was a canning facility.

The KMT has historically been the party supportive of nuclear energy, while the DPP has been opposed. This continues to be the case, with the DPP aiming to phase out nuclear energy by 2025, and largely shrugging off a 2018 referendum that voted down that goal. The Lungmen Reactor is seen as particularly dangerous by anti-nuclear advocates, due to the numerous stops and starts in its construction through past decades and its use of mixed parts. However, the KMT may intend for the referendum on its restart to be part of a broader push for nuclear energy.

That being said, nuclear restarts have quietly taken place under the Tsai administration. As the anti-nuclear movement leans much more pan-Green, it largely had the wind taken out of its sails since the Tsai administration took power – a phenomenon that the DPP may hope to repeat with the movement against the LNG terminal in Taoyuan.

The KMT’s stance on nuclear energy proves somewhat conflicted. At the same time as it pushes for nuclear restarts, it opposes food imports from regions of Japan affected by the Fukushima disaster, something that Japan is likely to use as a precondition if Taiwan hopes to enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The KMT has framed such food products as dangerously irradiated. The KMT also has taken a strong stance on plans by Japan to carry out nuclear wastewater discharges into the Pacific Ocean.

As the pro-China party in Taiwanese politics and one with deep animosity against Japan dating back to the Sino-Japanese War, the KMT likely opposes closer economic ties with Japan that could encourage closer political ties in order to ward off the threat of China – something the DPP would hope to see. Leveraging the issue of food imports from Fukushima would be one way to tank strengthening economic relations with Japan. This is similar to how the KMT has sought to leverage the controversy about ractopamine-treated pork – another issue up for referendum – to block closer trade relations with the United States that might increase the political incentive for the U.S. to defend Taiwan.

The KMT’s promotion of nuclear power may also struggle due to its somewhat questionable public faces, who have decidedly unscientific views on nuclear energy. Huang Hsih-chiu, the convenor of Nuclear Mythbusters and a former assistant of past party chair Hung Hsiu-chu, is the proposer of the referendum question on Lungmen Reactor No. 4. Past statements by Huang that have raised eyebrows include calling for each household in Taiwan to be issued a plastic bottle of nuclear waste, so that the burden of nuclear waste could be shared equally among all of Taiwan’s residents.

In the past, growing issues regarding air pollution have also been put to a national referendum. In the 2018 elections, one of the referendum questions was on the construction of coal-fired power plants that contribute to air pollution especially heavy during the winter in central and southern Taiwan. The KMT emphasized the issue as part of its 2018 campaigning, though changes to the Referendum Act since passed by the DPP have split the date of referendums from the date that elections are held on.

In this way, environmental issues in Taiwan have yet to be situated within international discourse regarding climate change, but more commonly revolve around political contestation between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps.

A relatively unremarked upon subtext to the energy debate in Taiwan is the question of China. While the DPP may have opposed the construction of the LNG terminal and nuclear energy when serving as the opposition, part of their reason for reversing course on the LNG terminal and allowing for some nuclear reactor restarts may be due to security concerns.

Namely, the LNG terminal would prove significant for Taiwan’s natural gas reserves in the event of a Chinese invasion or blockade that cuts off supplies of coal and natural gas. A nuclear reactor can also be spun up relatively quickly compared to a natural gas plant or peaker coal plant in the event of sudden energy needs. But, for the most part, this has not entered the debate vis-à-vis the effects on the environment and Taiwan’s contemporary energy needs.