Why in a post-IPCC world we need more from our energy wins

The Taiwanese government’s decision to abandon plans for a new coal-fired power plant should have been a win for civil society. But it only underscored the need to keep fighting for a clean energy revolution, writes Greenpeace’s Cony Chang.

Protesting the Shen Ao coal-fired power plant in Taiwan
Protesters dangle from a bridge in New Taipei City to protest the construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Shen Ao, Taiwan. Image: Greenpeace

As the IPCC report wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, one thing was clear.

We’re up against some pretty frightening deadlines, but ending global coal-generated electricity by 2050—with a two-thirds reduction by 2030 as recommended by the report—is both necessary and achievable.

In just one of the many people-powered movements happening all over the world in the fightback against fossil fuels, this year Greenpeace Taiwan took a stand against a planned coal-fired power plant in beautiful Shen Ao, northern Taiwan.

The plant was going to be built in a picturesque fishing community and produce the same amount of pollution as all the cars in Taipei. Construction of the coal receiving dock was going to ruin coral reefs and hit the coastal ecosystem hard.

There was an uprising, and it was a movement we were proud to be part of. Civil groups and people power came together in the best possible way. Amid the many meetings, petition signings and press conferences, Greenpeace also worked with local academics to publish research revealing the significant potential adverse health impacts if the plant was built.

Nearly 50 activists climbed a bridge in New Taipei City, displaying banners that demanded the government drop the plans for the plant. A singular diver took on an entire coastal ecological system survey in an effort to challenge Taipower’s claim that there was a “lack of bountiful marine ecosystem” at the site.

In short, when it was announced on 12 October that the government was abandoning the idea of the power plant, it was a hard-earned win for people power.

And at first glance, it looks like a great step for a government on the path towards reducing coal reliance, in light of the new science and a population that made its demands clear.

It could also have been the moment the Taiwanese government took a step towards following through on its promises to have one-fifth of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2025.

But instead, there was a caveat. Because when it comes to energy, there always seems to be a caveat.

When the government first announced it was reconsidering Shen Ao, it said the decision hinged on whether the Environmental Protection Agency approved the expansion of a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan.

According to environmentalists, the LNG expansion will cause severe damage to the planned construction site’s ecosystem, with experts arguing for the conservation of an “unprecedented” particular type of endemic algae reef off the coast Taoyuan.

Despite the environmental controversies around the decision, a couple of days later the LNG expansion was approved. And a couple of days after that, so was the decision to cancel Shen Ao.

There was a trade-off. We could lose the coal and save the coral, but we had to accept gas instead, and forfeit another ecosystem.

Why do we seem stuck in this binary choice, this inescapable loop, when we know there is a third way where fishing communities, coral, biodiversity and air quality don’t have to be impacted at all?

Taiwan is a good example of a country that has made its ambitious energy transition goal public, promising to increase energy supply from renewable sources to 20 per cent in the next seven years. With Shen Ao, there was an opportunity to develop a sustainable alternative. Instead of gas, the government could have invested in rooftop solar in urban areas that would have generated electricity from northern Taiwan and matched peak demand. The island is also located at a tectonic movement hotspot, which means it has geothermal potential. To achieve these goals, Taiwan also has to increase renewable energy penetration into the electricity system and deploy grid-scale storage technologies to improve grid flexibility.

But there was no mention of how renewables or improvements to the grid could support energy stability in Taiwan in place of coal. Just another reef destroyed—this time by liquified natural gas.

Why do we seem stuck in this binary choice, this inescapable loop, when we know there is a third way where fishing communities, coral, biodiversity and air quality don’t have to be impacted at all? We must make a paradigm shift to renewable energy from solar, wind and water. The IPCC proved the urgency is real. Governments around the world are faced with choices that can also make the transition real.

We want to celebrate our win, and the moment when it looked like our leaders had heard us, heard the science, stood by their promises and made a commitment to look beyond fossil fuels.

But it wasn’t a clean win, and—as the IPCC report has proven—until the commitments to truly look beyond fossil fuels are genuine, we’re going to have to keep fighting dirty.

Cony Chang is an Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia’s Taipei office. This article was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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