Energy and the Environment

The negative costs of Taiwan’s impressive economic growth are perhaps most apparent in the areas of energy and the environment. For this reason, Taiwanese around the island have established grass-roots organizations to press for energy alternatives and end the severe degradation of their environment.


Energy Policy

In the area of energy, as in other policy matters, it is unfortunate that the government has systematically excluded Taiwan’s citizens from a say in decision-making. The authorities have virtually exhausted the island’s coal supplies, but have not tapped other energy resources available on the island, which include renewable and sustainable solar, geothermal, tidal, wind, and fuelwood power sources. They have also encouraged clear cutting of forests, adding to already serious soil and water pollution. National policy has failed to offer the private sector incentives for developing alternate energy resources.

Until international petroleum prices shot up in 1973, Taiwan took advantage of cheap oil to fuel its industrialization. This left the island’s entire economy highly susceptible to oil price fluctuations. Today, Taiwan continues to buy virtually all of its petroleum from Persian Gulf suppliers, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, adding to vulnerability to price swings, embargoes, and Middle East politics.

To address this problem, the government has chosen to make Taiwan heavily dependent on nuclear power. The risks of such a strategy for a small, densely populated island are obvious, but those in charge would seem to have gone out of their way to compound safety problems. Two of the island’s three on-line nuclear plans are located within 12 miles of metropolitan Taipei, in an area of active geological faults where earthquakes and typhoons are common, and on the edge of a semi-active volcano. Taiwan must import all of the uranium to fuel the reactors, and has relied exclusively on foreign reactors, generators, and architecture and engineering services, offsetting some of the savings on oil imports. The three nuclear plants, with six reactors, generate 43% of Taiwan’s electricity, the second highest level of reliance on nuclear power in the world after France.

Originally, the government planned to have 24 power reactors on-line by the year 2000, generating 51% of the island’s energy needs, with petroleum accounting for another 1.1%, and coal and hydropower providing most of the rest. However, highly-publicized safety problems, including more than one serious accident at each of the existing plants, have led to widespread public opposition to the construction of new nuclear plants. the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union of the dangers of nuclear power.

In 1985, when the authorities announced plans to build a fourth nuclear plant in eastern Taiwan, most of the KMT lawmakers elected from Taiwan joined opposition politicians, environmental groups, and local residents in condemning this plan. In 1988, with a large demonstration planned to mark the anniversary of the U.S. nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the government agreed to cancel the fourth nuclear plant and build 14-19 new coal-fired power stations.

In February 1991, Premier Hau reversed this decision, citing the Persian Gulf crisis as one reason why Taiwan needed another nuclear power facility. He acted before a government-appointed advisory panel could make recommendations. The following May, 10,000 people rallied in Taipei to protest the revival of nuclear plant Number Four; this was the largest environmental gathering in Taiwan’s history.

Because the government decides policies relating to energy and other matters in a closed, undemocratic matter, protests currently offer the only way to challenge reliance on nuclear power, expensive imported oil, or highly polluting and increasingly imported coal.


Environmental Issues

The enormous environmental costs of Taiwan’s rapid industrial development are readily apparent to anyone who visits the island. From downtown Taipei -- one of the world’s most polluted cities -- to small rural villages, people wear surgical masks to minimize the risks from breathing unhealthy air. Virtually every river on the islands is an open sewer for industrial and household wastes.

Taiwan’s farmers are among the world’s heaviest users of agricultural chemicals, and this has further harmed water quality due to run off, as well as soil fertility. Agricultural and industrial chemicals seeping into the soil have made much of the food grown in Taiwan unsafe. The proliferation of small factories in rural areas has added to environmental problems, although large private and state-owned enterprises are the major polluters. Also, Taiwan has 15 times as many motor vehicles per square kilometer (272) as the United States; this is the major source of air pollution in the capital city.

Deteriorating environmental quality has led to a public health crisis on the island. Taiwan still has a high incidence of hepatitis B, and cases of cancer, heart and lung decease, and birth defects have increased along with pollution.

In response, Taiwanese all over the island have established community-based environmental organizations. Activists and intellectuals have also joined together to form national anti-pollution advocacy groups. In shutting down a polluting chemical plant in Taichung County and blocking construction of titanium dioxide factory in Changhua County. The latter venture, sponsored by the U.S. -based Dupont corporation, would have represented the single largest foreign investment project in Taiwan; a local KMT politician led the protests. These protests inspired social activists all over the island.

In 1987 and 1988, an environmental demonstration took place, on average, once a day, and the sometimes militant protests continue today. Environmentalists and people living near existing and proposed factories have targeted some of Taiwan’s biggest and most powerful companies, such as Formosa Plastics an estate-owned China Petroleum. They have convinced these and other petrochemical firms to improve waste water disposal at existing facilities, which had threatened the vital fishing industry, but sharp debate continues over expansion plans. With petrochemicals accounting for 20-30% of Taiwan’s GNP, it is clear that quality of life is at least as important as economic growth in the eyes of a growing number of Taiwanese.

The government had long argued that strong environmental laws would scare away forcing investors. However, in view of the growing strength of the environmental movement, the government established a cabinet-level Environmental Protection Agency in 1987. Although it has sometimes played an important role in resolving disputes between polluting factories and the surrounding communities, it is generally regarded as timid in its efforts to force companies to comply with anti-pollution laws. But the EPA has indeed taken a number of steps in the right direction, including initiating a significant environmental education program at all levels in the school system to help create a new generation of environmentally aware young citizens. It also publishes several magazines and produces television shows to spread the word about environmental protection. Nevertheless, a 1987 poll conducted by National Taiwan University researchers in heavily polluted areas found that 80% of the respondents believed continued protests would be necessary to get the government to take action to protect the environment.