Taiwan and Climate Change

Six views on how it and climate community can work better together

Taiwan and Climate Change

What are the most important barriers in Taiwan’s international diplomatic and economic relations that inhibit the country’s adoption of more ambitious climate policy or hold back its potential contribution to global decarbonization efforts? Considering these obstacles, how can the international community and the climate movement work better together with Taiwan?

Dr. Chien-Te Fan

Professor of Law, Founding Director of Institute of Law for Science and Technology (ILST), National Tsing Hua University

Taiwan’s longtime intention to actively participate in international climate action has not diminished. However, over the past 30 years, with the rise of mainland China’s economic power together with the consequent changes to international political and economic conditions, Taiwan’s diplomatic participation space has also been squeezed to various degrees, including through the limitation of Taiwan’s official participation to the NGO system in global climate meetings. This was later followed by U.S. policy limited to supporting Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international conventions of non-sovereign related affairs, even as a state observer.[1] Now, the new campaign “Taiwan Can Help” has confronted various degrees of restrictions upon cross-strait interactions as well. Obviously, all these international political and/or economic restraints have affected the development of Taiwan’s domestic climate policies and substantially limited Taiwan’s ambition to contribute to global carbon reduction efforts.

Since the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, Taiwan has strengthened its endeavors towards climate action. Influenced by the international industrial decarbonization pressure driven by leading industrial countries, Taiwan has formally integrated climate actions into its primary policy efforts through four successive national energy conferences to consolidate public-private consensus, and successively passed a number of laws and/or administrative plans, including the Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act in 2015, to establish Taiwan’s initial carbon reduction targets including a 50 percent cut relative to 2005 levels as its 2050 carbon neutrality target.

However, for Taiwan (a net energy importer), the impact of carbon reduction policies falls not only upon industry but also upon the general public through energy prices, which affect the cost of living and transportation. With the public unaware of the climate emergency, customary elite political decision-making obviously cannot win in party politics. Thus, even after Taiwan voluntarily adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015, a more ambitious carbon reduction goal is needed for Taiwan. The transformation of the energy structure remains challenging as well.

Essentially, Taiwan’s failure to significantly increase its carbon reduction goals in recent years has resulted from features of the national political and economic system and the lack of popular support.

Not until the European Union launched its Cross Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM)—a tariff on carbon-intensive imported products—coupled with global pressure to green supply chains have export-oriented Taiwanese companies felt an urgent necessity to comply with a domestic carbon pricing mechanism to both cope with the threats of CBAM and preserve international trade competitiveness. In turn, this provided a push to drive up the ambition of Taiwan’s climate action and increase carbon reduction goals. At the same time, to actively deploy renewable energy and promote transformation toward a low-carbon society, the government has begun to strengthen social communication and emphasize the issue of a just transition. This has given the general public a deeper understanding of climate actions and, as with Taiwan being a member of Earth Village, a deeper appreciation of sustainable responsibilities towards the next generation. Higher public awareness of such issues has been reflected in several energy-related referenda held in Taiwan recently.

Clearly, under the international political and economic pressure caused by cross-strait issues, Taiwan has not flinched. Rather, stimulated by the development of CBAM and green supply chain initiatives, we have seen the public-private sector working together to strengthen Taiwan’s green strategy. Now, with the passage of the Climate Change Response Act in 2023, together with the inclusion of core carbon reduction goals, energy transition, carbon pricing schemes, low-carbon society, adaptation, and even international cooperation strategies, such pressure has been converted into an ambitious thrust. In addition, Taiwan has actively introduced social communication mechanisms and strengthened policies to promote a fair transition towards 2050 net-zero emissions. Indeed, through the Climate Change Response Act, Taiwan is now well equipped to contribute to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree Celsius temperature target.

However, even though Taiwan excels in its scientific and technological capacities (e.g., in the semiconductor and electronics industries) and in the high performance of its national financial institutions, the international convention has not been able to treat Taiwan fairly. This runs completely contrary to the UNFCCC’s emphasis on Leave No One Behind. Indeed, thanks to its technology and finance capacities, Taiwan has shown that it can be helpful in relieving North-South conflicts revolving around loss and damage issues, climate finance, and technology transfer. In addition, Taiwan has long invested in supporting carbon reduction and adaptation for developing countries, the most important area of recent global collaboration. Excluding Taiwan from the Paris Agreement’s governance has not only deprived Taiwan’s industry of useful economic tools for reducing carbon abatement costs (for example, the global market mechanism created by the Article 6 of the Paris Agreement), but also restricted vulnerable countries’ opportunities to benefit from Taiwan’s assistance. Such factors are convincing arguments for why the international community should be more active in establishing legal and political conditions to connect Taiwan’s capacities with broader efforts to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.

Indeed, Taiwan already serves as a contracting party or member of several international organizations and conventions at different levels of affairs, such as the International Fisheries Organization. Therefore, recognized as a state with special international sovereignty, subject to related legal practices, Taiwan can and shall be acknowledged by the UNFCCC as an eligible international entity, embedded with capacity to bear international obligations and enjoy legal entitlements and rights. At any rate, climate affairs are a matter of global concern that must motivate large-scale public-private cooperation, and we hope that the international community can actively plan a reasonable channel to connect Taiwan’s climate action efforts to global processes based on the principles of pragmatism and fairness.

Dr. Ker-hsuan Chien

Assistant Professor, Institute of Technology Management, National Tsing Hua University

Global sustainable supply chain governance aims to transform the energy consumption of worldwide supply chains. Such initiatives could have a tremendous impact on Taiwan’s energy system. Many of them having set a goal of zero emissions by 2050, businesses are under a lot of pressure to decarbonize their supply chains. For global brands like Apple, HP, and Nike, decarbonization means not only decarbonizing their operations but also their supply chains. As an important manufacturing site of global electronic components (for example, semiconductors), Taiwan is under a lot of pressure to decarbonize its electricity grid.

In response to the increasing demand for renewable energy, the Taiwanese government has, in the last few years, adopted industrial policies to boost the development of the renewable energy industry (for example, offshore wind power) and loosened up planning restrictions to speed up the implementation of such renewable energy projects. However, two concerns are emerging in relation to the growing popularity of renewable energy.

First, some renewable energy technologies (notably solar PV and wind) require sufficient space in which to deploy, so the rapid implementation of such projects is threatening the local natural environment and competing for space with the agricultural sector. Second, the stochastic nature of solar and wind power means that the increasing penetration of renewable energy into the existing electrical grid requires higher system flexibility, which adds costs and uncertainties to local energy systems. These issues demand more than local regulatory interventions and energy policies. International carbon disclosure regimes and global brands can help address these challenges too.

To meet buyers’ demands to decarbonize, local manufacturers are the ones who are actually engaged in procuring renewable energy. This procurement is often shaped by the standards and rules set by buyers and by international guidelines for disclosure. The technical criteria for everything from “What is renewable?” to “How to make a credible renewable electricity usage claim” are set by brands and programs, which ultimately determine how the challenges of decarbonizing energy consumption are tackled by individual suppliers locally. Therefore, to reduce the negative externalities from the renewable energy trade, the standards and rules that govern such transactions must better respond to the potential impacts of procurement processes.

For instance, whereas the question of whether a solar PV project replaces farming or co-exists with farming on the same farmland might make little difference to certain buyers under the standards they follow, it makes a considerable difference to agricultural communities. Similarly, procuring renewable energy from a project that generates renewable energy at peak hours or off-peak hours may have similar implications for companies’ annual sustainability reports, but creates significant differences for local grids.

Such issues require a deeper collaboration between global brands, international carbon disclosure regimes, and local grid operators. Both the technical criteria and the rules of local renewable energy trade must be better defined, which will ensure that each renewable energy transaction better reflects the value created by—or the cost imposed to—the local energy system and the local environment.

Dr. John Chung-En Liu

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Intl Program in Climate Change and Sustainable Development, National Taiwan University

Membership matters. One of the most significant barriers lies in the fact that Taiwan cannot participate in the UNFCCC process.

The consequences are manifold. First, Taiwan faces little international pressure to make deeper decarbonization commitments, and such climate actions would be taken as voluntary because there is no legally binding international agreement. Some scholars characterize Taiwan as having a “gesture policy”—fulfilling only the minimal requirement but showing no serious ambition. Second, some actors even use UN non-membership as an excuse. They may say: “If the world does not care about our rights, why should we contribute more?” Finally, and probably most importantly, the ambiguous sovereignty status restricts Taiwanese people’s participation in global climate efforts, leading to serious information and knowledge gaps. Although bilateral exchanges between Taiwan and allies regarding climate issues exist, these exchanges are qualitatively different from being able to participate fully and meaningfully on the global stage.

In fact, the UNFCCC does not require statehood to join, as the European Union is a party to the Convention; nor are all UNFCCC participants full members: the Holy See and the state of Palestine joined as observers before they advanced to full membership. Besides the UN process, Taiwan could also benefit from more robust engagement in bilateral, multilateral, and Track II (non-governmental) diplomacy with its allies regarding climate actions. As Taiwan produces sizable carbon emissions, experiences various climate threats, and plays a critical role in the global tech supply chain, the international community could in turn benefit from offering a seat to Taiwan. Taiwan indeed can help.

Besides the political arena, there are ample opportunities for the international community to work more closely with Taiwan to promote climate action. For example, Taiwan is a vital producer in the net-zero supply chain, such as solar panels, batteries, electric vehicle parts, and more. Taiwan is also emergent as an exciting hotspot of offshore wind power in Asia. Stronger trade relationships will help both Taiwan and allies cultivate these decarbonization-related industries. Simultaneously, through supply chain management, the international community has already been exerting positive pressure to push Taiwanese suppliers to take carbon emissions seriously. Taiwan can also work with the international community to develop crucial technologies such as hydrogen and geothermal energy. Finally, in the midst of shifting global geopolitics, we have witnessed increasing exchanges between Taiwanese civil society and transnational actors in recent years. More international media and NGOs have established their offices in Taiwan. While these efforts have been more focused on democracy, freedom, and human rights than about climate, I hope this trend will continue and can expand in scope, to support the net-zero transition with robust oversight from the bottom up.

Dr. Tsung-Kuang Yeh

Professor of Department of Engineering and System Science, Affiliated Professor of Institute of Nuclear Engineering and Science, National Tsing Hua University

The most important barrier lying ahead of Taiwan in diplomatic and economic relations is the energy transition strategy executed by the Taiwanese government. With low-carbon nuclear energy being phased out and substituting renewable energy not catching up fast enough, it is inevitable that fossil fuels will play important roles in the energy mix of Taiwan over the coming decade.

As a result, the Taiwanese government must not only strive to promptly increase the capacity of wind and solar power, but it must also heavily rely upon fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. Accordingly, an ambitious climate policy is out of the question at least for the next few years.

Wind power and solar power are intermittent energy sources, implicating that for Taiwan’s steady supply of electricity base loads are still required. In the absence of nuclear energy, the applicable base loads are either coal or natural gas, precisely the sources of carbon emissions. Furthermore, a greater electricity share of renewables—and of solar power, in particular—would consume large areas of land or roof on this small island, and this in turn causes environmental protection concerns.

A total of six nuclear reactor units used to operate in Taiwan, contributing more than 15% of annual electricity generation. With the closure of all nuclear reactors by 2025, Taiwan’s growing demand for electricity, and anticipated delays in achieving 20% or higher generation from renewables, Taiwan does not exhibit any potential to contributing to global decarbonization efforts at the moment.

However, even though anti-nuclear beliefs are embedded in the bones of the governing party, there is still hope. With a definite possibility of electricity shortages in coming years and more demonstrations of “going green with nuclear” for the goal of net-zero carbon emissions in the wider international community, our government may eventually switch to a new strategy that relies upon an energy mix of renewables bonded with novel and safer nuclear technology, such as small modular reactors.

Until then, Taiwan will slowly move towards being a nuclear-free country that once greatly benefited from nuclear energy, hardly able to exert significant efforts in fighting climate change.

Dr. Wan-Yu Shih

Associate Professor, Urban Planning and Disaster Management, Ming-Chuan University

It is not news that Taiwan has long been excluded from international environmental agendas. This is relevant not only for climate change efforts, but also for progress on sustainable development, biodiversity, and disaster risk reduction. Taiwan’s international exclusion has hindered the ability of the latest knowledge and techniques to reach Taiwan and to develop thoroughly in the country over the past decades. Debates and discussions on sustainable development and climate change responses tend to be limited to Taiwanese scholars and persons who have had the opportunity to develop a global mindset or gain overseas experiences.

In the domain of climate change mitigation, Taiwan has remained quite inactive until recently. For several years, the slogan of “energy saving and carbon reduction (節能減碳)” was used almost as a synonym for climate change mitigation. Both government and society lacked a sense of urgency as well as know-how for addressing this pressing issue. Taiwan’s absence from the UNFCCC process and subsequent opportunities for international collaboration and inter-country learning is of course one of the key drivers of this dynamic.

Although Taiwan is small in terms of its territory, its CO2 emissions account for 0.78% of world emissions and Taiwan’s per capita emissions are high (12.07 tons per capita), ranking 25th and 24th respectively in the world as of 2021 (EC, 2022). As a country which has newly transformed from a developing to a more developed state, much of Taiwan’s GHG emissions have resulted from industrialization and urbanization, both closely related to land use decisions. Nevertheless, a shortage of opportunities to participate in the international climate change science-policy community has been an obstacle for enabling global trends and state-of-the-art thinking on low carbon development and local governance to reach Taiwan’s planning society.

This can be seen in the implementation of the National Spatial Planning Laws. Despite the fact that significant efforts in Taiwan have sought to incorporate climate change response into spatial planning through the enactment of National Spatial Planning Laws

(國土計畫法), these efforts have been continuously undermined by unsustainable local development decisions. Neglect of the role of land-use planning as a tool for responding to climate change can also been observed from the new Climate Change Response Law (氣候變遷因應法). Concepts and practices that have been widely discussed and highlighted in the global agenda regarding cities and climate change, such as urban form that lowers energy demand, green infrastructure strategy, and the need for poverty reduction, remain omitted within Taiwan.

Nevertheless, Taiwan needs to narrow the gap and catch up with the global pace of climate action. The empowerment of local communities and youth in past decades have led to the prosperous development of environmental NGOs and civil society groups across Taiwan. Such organizations have played an active role in disseminating scientific information, raising important issues from the international climate agenda, and appealing to the government for innovative policy proposals. Taiwan’s civil society has become an important strength for mobilizing the government in Taiwan towards more ambitious targets.

Additionally, champions within the government and the official mechanisms developed to engage civil society in designing climate policies have gradually created a good culture of climate governance. Although some argue that more centralized governments have the capability to implement more radical and rapid policy changes, decentralized governments and a more democratic process are more likely to provide transparency and reflect voices across different segments of society. In this regard, Taiwan represents a unique case of climate governance amongst East Asian countries and can offer unique lessons, distinct from other global exemplars. Greater recognition and involvement of Taiwan in setting the international agenda and greater participation of Taiwan in science-policy platforms for climate change can therefore promote better governance and bring mutual benefits.

Po-Jen Hsu

Researcher, Environmental Rights Foundation

Since 2016, the restructuring of the global supply chain—first due to the U.S.-Chinese trade war and then followed by the Covid-19 pandemic—has changed the triangular trade model of the past two decades between Taiwan, China, and Western markets (the United States and EU), in which Taiwan received orders and China produced. Many Taiwanese businesses have moved their production bases back to Taiwan, thereby significantly increasing the world’s dependence on Taiwan’s semiconductors and other key components. In the past five years, semiconductor manufacturers including TSMC have successively launched investment plans to expand production capacity in Taiwan. In 2021, Taiwan’s semiconductor output value reached roughly 110 billion NTD (3.61 billion USD), an over 2.5-fold increase compared with the industry’s 40 billion NTD (1.31 billion USD) output value in 2016 and accounted for approximately 66 percent of the global semiconductor foundry market.

This rising global reliance on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry triggered reindustrialization within the country while also exerting pressure on Taiwan’s domestic energy use. By 2021, the energy consumption of the industrial sector had increased by 8 percent relative to 2016 levels. In recent years, due to the intensified military threat from Beijing and heightened geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, the Taiwanese government is consciously preserving the world’s reliance on the country’s semiconductor industry, so as to maintain political, economic, diplomatic and military support for Taiwan globally.

We believe that the government is purposefully supporting the growth of the semiconductor industry and maintaining the world’s dependence on Taiwan for the sake of national security, which is one of the main reasons for Taiwan’s weak decarbonization policies. Last year, the Taiwanese government proposed to reduce national carbon emissions by a mere 24% by 2030—a target heavily criticized as too conservative and incompatible with Taiwan’s ambitions to achieve net zero by 2050.

We hope that the international climate movement can actively assist Taiwan in navigating the current competition between national security, semiconductor industry growth, and Taiwan’s decarbonization timeline, supporting Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturers to propose a clearer roadmap to achieve real CO2 emission reductions, and urging the Taiwanese government to propose a decarbonization plan that involves industrial restructuring.