The Taiwanese are a conscientious people - they recycle more than half their waste, actively use the Taipei-wide bike-sharing programme YouBike, and transformed the capital’s retired Neihu landfill into an urban park.
Economically, the island is the world’s second-largest solar cell producer after China and a top manufacturer of energy-saving LED lights.
Yet, this has not translated into a strong drive to be more energy-efficient on home ground, says Dr Lin Chun-Hsu, research fellow and deputy director of the Taipei-based Center for Green Economy, which studies trends and policies surrounding the green economy as a division of think tank Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research.
Taiwan exports between 80 and 90 per cent of its green products and services, which include green construction materials, home appliances, drainage systems and environmental protection equipment.
“It’s very ironic, I know,” rues Lin. “We’re very good at production, but something is missing in Taiwan and now we’re trying to promote the use of green products and services (among our people).”
Green trade accounted for 19 per cent of Taiwan’s total exports in 2014 and 2015, according to the country’s Green Trade Project Office, and has been a major focus for the island’s export-oriented economy as the demand for more sustainable ways of living increases globally, says Lin.
A Green Trade Project Office was set up in 2011 under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, while the Center for Green Economy Lin works at was created three years ago.
The professor, whose research focuses on resource recycling, environmental policy and planning, says Taiwan’s emphasis on green trade effectively kills two birds with one stone.
Firstly, Taiwan is able to promote more sustainable ways of living, working and producing.
Lin explains that each government agency is in charge of greening a certain aspect of the economy. For instance, certain agencies work on innovation and R&D, while others strive to make manufacturing more environmentally friendly.
Green trade is therefore the umbrella that ties the efforts of each ministry or agency together, in a holistic push towards a greener Taiwan, he adds.
Secondly, going green also makes economic sense for Taiwan, says Lin. As the urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions picks up, there is a market for the green fruits of Taiwan’s labour.
A good student aims high
Taiwan is not a signatory to international climate change and environment protection treaties such as the Paris Climate Agreement.
But Taiwan has been engaged in environmental protection activities for a long time, and is trying to do the same thing as the rest of the international community, says Lin, adding: “What I’m trying to say is, Taiwan is a good student.”
He says Taiwan continues to send delegations abroad to learn best practices in sustainability, and rolled out its own Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) declaration last year despite not being party to the COP 21 treaty.
An INDC is a document in which countries publicly commit to climate goals in order to achieve the targets of the COP 21.
According to the Taiwanese government, Taiwan is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 20 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, and by more than 50 per cent by 2050.
It has also announced the intention to launch a carbon cap-and-trade scheme and implement it gradually.
The new Democratic Progressive Party government has pledged to shutter by 2025 the island’s nuclear plants that produce 20 per cent of the island’s energy supply, while doubling solar power capacity within the next two years.
However, Lin has his own reservations about Taiwan’s declared goals, which he calls “too ambitious” and “almost not feasible”.
The first major barrier to achieving these goals - and where Taiwan can reduce emissions the most, in his opinion - is the need to persuade citizens to cut energy use.
Low electricity prices, the third-lowest in the world, have led to energy shortages during the peak summer season as affordable prices give residents no incentive to conserve, especially when it comes to air-conditioning in the heat of summer.
“Energy-saving technologies are available in the market, but because electricity prices are too low, it doesn’t make financial sense for people or companies to invest in them,” Lin says.
Furthermore, falling crude oil costs prompted state-owned utility board Taiwan Power to lower electricity prices by an average 9.5 per cent during the last half-yearly review.
Lin adds that while Taiwan does have programmes targeting consumers, they are “not so effective” for small- or medium-sized households.
Starting in October, Taiwan will adopt another differential pricing scheme in which energy costs vary according to the time of the day. But it targets only heavy consumers who use over 700 kWh per month, and requires the home or building owner to make an application to benefit from it.
The second challenge, says Lin, is the current economic climate. With the Asian economy slowing down, introducing regulatory measures to improve energy efficiency could result in an outcry from the general public and private sector alike.
“Certainly, the green economy, unlike other economic development, is closely interconnected with the determination of a government,” he comments.
“But the transformation to a green economy needs a lot of effort and initial investment from both public and private sectors, which is not a top priority if economic growth is very slow, like at this moment.”
Energy-saving technologies are available in the market, but because electricity prices are too low, it doesn’t make financial sense for people or companies to invest in them.
Dr Lin Chun-Hsu, research fellow and deputy director, Center for Green Economy, Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research
For Lin, Taiwan can afford to do a lot more to promote sustainability in the economy and as a set of ideals, both within Taiwan and beyond it.
He quotes Singapore and South Korea as examples of countries that have done this well. The Singapore government dangles incentives to encourage the installation of solar photovoltaic systems and green buildings, while South Korea launched the comprehensive Green Growth policy that aims to move the economy away from fossil fuel-based growth towards renewable energy.
Lin is also moderating a session with Canadian delegates at the upcoming Taiwan International Green Industry Show (TiGiS) in Taipei to share what Taiwan has put in place to make its society greener while also learning from Canada’s experience. Canada is one of many countries that Lin facilitates institutional-level exchanges with to promote collaboration and establish connections for the green economy.
The sixth edition of TiGiS, organised by the Taiwan External Trade Development Council, showcases green solutions from both the public and private sectors. Companies dealing with air and water treatment, waste reclamation, and eco-friendly product packaging, among others, will be exhibiting.
TiGiS is also hosting platforms for discussing issues and best practices within the industry, including Canada-Taiwan Hydrogen and Wind Energy Forum, France-Australia-Netherlands Green Energy Forum, and Taiwan Water Industry Conference 2016.
There will also be one-to-one procurement meetings and new product presentations. The show will run concurrently with the Taiwan International Photovoltaic Exhibition.