Sustainable Development: Taiwan’s Perspective, Taiwan’s Role

Conference on The United Nations, Taiwan and Sustainable Development, 19 July 2008This report is an adaptation of a presentation given by the Taiwan delegation to the Global Greens
Congress held in São Paulo Brazil on 3 May 2008.

The original English version was written by Robin Winkler, the Chinese by Lin Jhenyang, Li Hanru, Li Syuanheng, Cui Suhsin and Jhang Chuanjia.

On account of the efforts of the United States and China, Taiwan’s ability to join
international conferences to discuss, debate and work towards solving global issues such as climate change, cross border pollution, conflict resolution, health issues and other aspects of sustainability is extremely compromised.

Although Taiwan is known by many names, the name I like best is “Ihla Formosa”, the words that are said to have been expressed by the Portuguese explorers in the early 17th century when they first came upon the island, an island that had been inhabited by the ancestors of some 70% of today’s Taiwan residents. The ancestors of Taiwan’s Indigenous people had been able to maintain the island through millennia of sustainable economic, political and social practices.

As Japanese colony for fifty years, Taiwan is said to have “reverted” to rule by the Republic of China in 1945. The status of Taiwan remains without consensus,
internationally, not to mention the rights of Taiwan’s half million Indigenous peoples. Lacking a “de jure” resolution, and the unlikelihood of a resolution soon, we must nevertheless look at the de facto status of Taiwan in order to address the issue of sustainable development. First, some environmental (in the broad sense, including natural environment, social and economic) attributes of Taiwan in order to give context to my view of sustainable development in Taiwan and its role the international community.

Our country of about 23.3 million people with an area slightly smaller than Holland but nearly two thirds of which are mountainous, enjoys a diversity of plants, people and other animals, soils and terrains that give the country vibrancy found in few other places on the Earth. Based on our land area alone, not counting the surrounding oceans, we have the second highest level of biological diversity in the world, and were known to 19th century naturalists as the “Galapagos of Asia”.

All this has radically changed with the introduction of “modern” modes of life such as the Dutch pelt traders during the 17th and 18th centuries that resulted in the near extinction of the Sika Deer, the subsequent large-scale import of Chinese farmers to open and work rice and sugar plantations, the exploitation of camphor trees by the Chinese Cing and Japanese governments, and of course the horribly exploitative and short-sighted logging of two and three thousand year old trees, first by the Japanese, and then even more insidiously by the Chinese through the later decades of the twentieth century.

In recent years Taiwan’s economic development has run on parallel tracks. On the one side has been the local large-scale infrastructure development that began in the 1970s. This brought major highway, port, mining, power plants of all kinds, and mega-manufacturing facilities such as petrochemical, paper, cement and steel plants throughout the country.

On the other side, our economy has been highly dependent upon the United States, first due to Taiwan’s strategic importance during the Korean conflict, then with a major USAID program, and more recently with a series of bilateral trade agreements beginning in 1987 and a push by the US to get Taiwan into the World Trade Organization with no opportunity for informed public debate. Taiwan’s relationship with the US is important. We are one of the major customers for US military sales and even excluding such sales, Taiwan typically ranks 6th or 7th among the US’s trading partners.

Following what is known as “derecognition” of Taiwan by the US in 1988, the US
enacted a domestic law, “The Taiwan Relations Act” which gives Taiwan a bizarre status outside the US diplomatic framework, but very much within the sphere of control by the US State Department and other agencies.

At the same time, Taiwan has a “special relationship” with China. China currently claims to own Taiwan. They have over a thousand missiles aimed at Taiwan, have passed a domestic law giving them the right to use force if Taiwan declares independence (such a declaration being totally unnecessary as Taiwan has long possessed the attributes of an independent country and with the elections of all new deputies to our legislature in 1992 and direct presidential elections in 1996, all the attributes of a fully democratic country), and relentlessly pursues a policy of “unification” – sometimes mistranslated as “unity” – through a number of direct and subtle activities.

These attempts at control by the US and intimidation by China have been going on for over sixty years. We Taiwanese have become somewhat accustomed to the situation and despite many setbacks, are making slow but sure progress in finding our own way, a way that reflects the essence of Taiwan, independent of the US and China.

Despite this progress however, as demonstrated in the following paragraphs, Taiwan’s development has been anything but sustainable, and I believe there is a close correlation between the plethora of unsustainable laws, policies, practices and habits in Taiwan and our inability to effectively find space to work within the international community.

The “economic miracle” that Taiwan is known for in many circles has left a horrible legacy of environmental devastation, displacement of people, and health and social problems that are far out of proportion for a country the size of Taiwan and far out of proportion to possible benefits enjoyed by the people from the economic development of the past.

Emissions: A number of our “achievements” may give you an idea of the seriousness of the problem. Our per capita greenhouse gas emissions are third in the world; and with less than .3% of the world’s population we rank 22d for our total emissions. Indeed, among OECD countries from 1990 to the present, Taiwan’s growth in CO2 emissions placed us at number one in the world.

Population: Over two thirds of the island are high mountains which means that of
the 36,000 square kilometers, only about 12,000 sq km are inhabitable – this is for a population of over 23 million. 5,000 people per sq km is much higher than any other country in the world, including Bangladesh which is currently known as the country with the highest population density.

Vehicles and highways: The roads and other vehicle habitats on the island are
continually growing in order to accommodate the growing number of vehicles – over 20 million at the end of 2007.

Nuclear: Our government has permitted the construction of six nuclear reactors within a radius of 30 kilometers and all of these are within 70 kilometers from the residences of eight million humans. Without having resolved safety and nuclear waste storage issues we continue with the construction of two more reactors, ironically right on the site where those first explorers were said to have uttered the words “Ihla Formosa”.

Consumption: Per capita consumption of cement in Taiwan is consistently first or
second in the world as is our per capita consumption of electronics, disposable plastic products, and our per capita generation of industrial waste.

Industrial: The world’s largest coal fired power plant, at over 5.5 million megawatts, is located in central Taiwan and the government continues to accept applications for new plants in the area.

Government subsidies against the future: In the meantime, the government keeps energy, water and industrial land use prices at levels that are among the world’s lowest in industrialized countries.

Health: Cancer rates of all types are soaring and despite calls from many experts linking this with environmental factors, the government insists of proving the link before it will take the statistics seriously.

Politics: Democracy in Taiwan, having made major strides in the 1990s has
deteriorated to the point that elected representatives openly admit representing the interests of major conglomerates for whom they shamelessly peddle influence, and when they don’t get their way, threaten government agencies with budget cuts.

These are but a few examples of the strains on Taiwan’s environment, society and politics, challenges which led the World Economic Forum in 2005 to place Taiwan at 145 out of 146 countries on its Environmental Sustainability Index, and which led Taiwan’s former minister of the environment to note that living at today’s standards, Taiwan would require an area of 28.8 times our present size to be self sufficient.

Chang Kow-lung, served as Minister of the Environment from 2005-2007. Following his departure he summarized the state of Taiwan’s environment in a report on addressing climate change:

To understand Taiwan’s environmental stress, take a look at the statistics. The
number of people per square kilometer, the number of cars, factories, pesticides
used…or the amount of per capita consumption, CO2 emissions, energy use,
electricity produced…. it goes on and on. Taiwan’s statistics are far ahead of other countries. From data on things such as environmental quality, water quality, food quality, rates of environment-related illness and disease, there is a great deal of room for improvement in the quality of the people’s surroundings. We should take note of a simple and basic fact: the 23 million people of Taiwan are living and consuming in a way that would require 28.3 times the area of Taiwan to maintain if we had to be self-sufficient. We are a super-power when it comes to exceeding our capacity.”3

This would be bad enough if it only involved Taiwan.

As Taiwan has begun to come to its senses on the social and environmental costs of short-term and short-sighted economic development, and attempted to impose some mechanisms (laws, pricing adjustments, etc.) to bring balance into play, industry has fled abroad to “greener” (i.e., lax environmental and labor standards) fields. Countries such as China have been the place of choice.

Taiwan is currently the largest foreign investor in China. We speak a very similar Ketagalan Review No. 15, September 2007 page 32 (translation by the author)language, many Taiwanese have close relatives in China and we share a great deal of cultural heritage with the Chinese. It is an easy place for us to do business. And now we have an administration that is acting as though Taiwan identity, and the quest for sustainability in our social, economic and natural environments should be sacrificed in favor of seeking riches in China.

Take a look at what has happened to Taiwan’s environment over the last three or four decades, and multiply it by 250 times or so to get an idea of what we might see from China. And here we are speaking from the perspective of politics, social issues and from the perspective of impact on our natural environment.

On the other hand, there may be an opportunity here for the very same reasons there is a threat. If Taiwan, with the help of the international community can continue with its own reform of its economic and social values, why shouldn’t these values-as-reformed not be exported to our trading partners and investment destinations? We should begin be setting an example and call upon our businesses that invest abroad to use a sort of “most favored nation” approach in its operations, in all aspects of potential impact - environment, labor, transparency, and other practices. This is a goal worthy of pursuing for China, Vietnam, and other target countries for Taiwan foreign investment and reflects a deeply rooted ethic of “not doing unto others as you would not have them do unto you”. This would certainly catch the attention of the international community and put us in a position to set the benchmark for a different type of international business, a model for the future.

The future of all countries, the future of the United Nations, depends on a
straightforward proposition: getting the world’s development back to sustainability. That deceptively simple concept was elegantly defined in the 1987 report to the United Nations, “Our Common Future”

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs4

And in 2003 Taiwan passed a law incorporating the definition nearly verbatim.5

Sustainable development is development that satisfies the needs of the present
generation without lessening the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs.

Our focus then, should be on “needs” rather than “wants”, and how we can satisfy these needs in a manner consistent with intergenerational and interspecies justice.

I believe in the people of Taiwan, as I believe in people around the world: if
individuals are able to have all the timely, accurate, complete information on
development, as well as the opportunity to fully and meaningfully participate in the decision making process, people will eventually come together to do the right thing, and bring sustainability and sanity back to development.

Firmin DeBarbander