Air pollution has long been a major issue in Taiwan. When I was there in 2004, it was generally a good idea to avoid putting your hands on things and avoid leaning on walls outdoors if wearing white. Failure to do that could mean you’d get black soot on your face or dark stains on your clothes. The burning of coal for power and steel production, along with other dirty plastic production processes, was responsible for much of this.
Solving this problem is complicated. Like most places, population growth and increases in personal wealth are all driving energy production upward. It also has become a social justice and even a racial issue as the wealthier Mandarin-speaking Taipei area tends to be pretty clean while the more southern Hokkien- and Hakka-speaking areas have borne the brunt of the pollution in more recent years. While it seems like a growing problem in terms of activism, protest, and media coverage, most measures of pollution have improved over time over all parts of the country.
When it comes to the reduction of power-related pollution, improvements have come not from reducing overall coal use, but by keeping coal growth flat while other sources of energy grow. Additionally, authorities have mandated even less coal burning in the winter, when its pollution is more likely to stick around and cause problems, instead burning more natural gas and using more renewables over time.
There’s also a small but important portion of overall pollution (and the largest source of particulate pollution) that floats in over the Taiwan strait from the People’s Republic of China, especially in the winter months. This means that not only domestic changes, but international changes, will be needed to improve Taiwan’s air quality.
Finally, motor vehicles are a huge contributor to air pollution and climate emissions for Taiwan. Not only are many vehicles older, but two-stroke scooters that are designed to burn pre-mixed oil as part of their normal operation are still very common.
Like in the United States and Europe, the issue of expanding nuclear has often split along partisan lines, with people on the right generally supporting it more and people on the left generally supporting it less and favoring alternatives. Also, like in other places, nuclear supporters are apt to beat nuclear opponents over the head with supposed environmental benefits.
The KMT (國民黨, or Guómíndǎng), Taiwan’s nationalist party, has been supporting the completion and activation of a nuclear power plant project that was mothballed. Nuclear advocate Huang Shih-hsiu (黃士修), the man who started the push for the referendum question on this, told Focus Taiwan that he thinks the incomplete nuclear power plant could have displaced the emissions from 7.3 million tons of coal annually. Concerns over energy security have also been a factor in the support of nuclear power.
On the other hand, the DPP (民主進步黨, or Democratic Progressive Party) says it’s not that simple. Sure, the burning of coal is worse for air quality and for climate change, but that doesn’t mean the other issues associated with nuclear power go away. For one, no local area on Taiwan wants to store all of the nuclear waste that would come from the plant. Forcing the issue would lead to social justice and racism issues again. Taiwan’s neighbor, Japan, also has relied heavily on nuclear energy in the past, and nobody on any of the islands in the region wants to face another Fukushima-type disaster (a reasonable fear for Taiwan).
Instead, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the DPP want to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2025, and replace their contribution to the grid with renewables. Currently, 12.7% of the Taiwan’s energy comes from nuclear power, 78.5% from coal, and 5.8% from renewables. The goal is to change that to 50% natural gas, 30% from coal plants (a 10% reduction), and 20% from renewable sources.
When voters went to the polls, they voted against the measure 52.3% to 46.7%, giving Tsai and the DPP support for their continued agenda of denuclearizing the country’s power grid. However, the referendum did fail to get enough turnout to be legally effective, and referendums in Taiwan aren’t ultimately legally binding on the government in power under current law. Regardless, it does serve as another argument against continuing or expanding nuclear power.
Major Environmental Improvements Are Still Very Much Possible Without Nuclear, & Are Already Underway
While the DPP plan only calls for a 10% reduction of coal, it’s important to point out that this reduction happens while the overall amount of electricity generated will go up. Not only does the population continue to grow, but transportation electrification is happening in Taiwan, which means that renewables and natural gas will not only be taking away from nuclear and coal, but from transportation emissions as well.
One of the biggest opportunities comes from the popularity of two-wheeled vehicles in Asia. Bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles are far more popular than they are in the United States, with scooters being the main transportation option for most adults in Taiwan. Because electrified scooters don’t require the enormous battery packs that cars do, networks of removable battery pack swap stations have been introduced all over Taiwan. This means that in addition to the few scooter owners who can charge a scooter in a stairwell, everyone else can have electric as a reasonable option.
E-bikes are also becoming extremely popular, as are low-speed scooters (licenses and registration aren’t required under 25 kph). Because e-bikes and most other low-speed scooters have a removable battery that can be charged from any power outlet, those also don’t require any additional infrastructure to charge. Unfortunately, this has led some to exploit the exception in the law and modify their bikes or scooters to go faster than they appear to at first, leading to safety concerns.
When you consider that these electric scooters and bikes are often replacing aging four-stroke and dirty-from-new two-stroke engines, the impact from this is probably going to be a lot bigger than many expect. Even if renewables weren’t increasing, just switching from those dirty scooters to an electric one charged with natural gas power would make for a huge air quality and climate impact.
Featured image by Gogoro Scooters.
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