Positioning Taiwan after the Leaders Summit on Climate|Fang-Yu Chen , Yao-Yuan Yeh , Austin Wang , Charles K.S. Wu

Published (HKT): 2021.05.02 09:41

During his campaign, Biden repeatedly stressed that climate change would play an important focus in his administration. After assuming office, Biden prioritized three policies: responding to climate change, dealing with China’s rise, and curbing the spread of COVID-19 and announced that his administration will use the whole-of-government approach to include every agency in the decision-making and policy discussion process.

On April 22nd, Biden invited more than 40 global leaders to participate in an online “Leaders Summit on Climate.” The US pledged to reduce its carbon emission by 50-52% (using the 2005 benchmark). To demonstrate leadership on this issue, the US has set itself a more stringent goal than previously expected. Other developed countries such as Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom also promised to reduce their carbon emission significantly.

Several areas require further observations. First, China and India, both major sources of carbon emission, and other developing countries such as Russia did not make new promises to reduce carbon emission. Recently, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry was sidelined in China during his visit. Thus, it seems like Sino-US cooperation is unlikely to materialize on this policy.

Second, even if the US extends the olive branch, the conflictual relationship between the US and China is unlikely to abate simply because of the possibility of cooperation on climate change. The US is aware that there might still be room for cooperation with China under the current climate; thus, the US often stresses the precondition that cooperation could only occur when it fulfills US national interests.

Judging from recent discussions between the US and its allies such as Japan and Australia on the topic of contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, we could be assured that those US policymakers who hold a naïve view of China and promotes the view that “working with China could make China a responsible stakeholder” will not return to the foreign policy decision-making circle to reconsider their belief. The US policy of engaging China has indeed been abandoned.

Third, it seems like the US is working to regain its leadership role in international organizations. However, there is still a high degree of certainty disregard competition among major powers and the lack of compulsory power of international organizations. Currently, China has permeated international organizations with its influence and assertiveness. At the same time, several polls have shown that the US public does not support spending more resources on international organizations (such as the United Nations). Consequently, the US has to appear more forceful to take back its leadership.

Fourth, Taiwan also “appeared” at the summit. During the meeting, President Tsai announced Taiwan’s goal to reach zero carbon emission in 2050. Tsai also participated in an innovative forum held by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) to celebrate “Earth Day.” At the forum, Tsai vowed to develop green energy and circular economy: “…will find the most sustainable way to Taiwan to practice climate governance and transform the challenge of reducing carbon emission into opportunities for new industries and employment.” These statements indicate that Taiwan is allying with the US on the issue of climate change.

However, climate change is still a topic on the periphery. There are even some recent cases of animosity toward environmental issues among citizens in Taiwan. For instance, some would reprimand that only leftards will care about environmental issues. In the political arena, promoting long-term environmental goals is difficult. Not only does the progress could not directly translate into achievements to win votes, but the progress would also actually alter the existing economic structure in Taiwan. In Taiwan, the industries with the highest amount of carbon emission are petrochemical, steel, and electronics. According to information released by Taiwan’s National Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Registry in 2019, Formosa Plastics Group accounted for 19% of Taiwan’s total emission, and China Steel Corporation occupied another 11%. These two groups, together, were responsible for around 30% of total emissions. The top 10 industries in the amount of carbon mission together constitute 40% of Taiwan’s total emission.

Consequently, in searching for reform in energy policy, Taiwan would have to face adjustments to its current industry structure. And the most impacted will be the industries that provide the highest economic benefits. There might also be concerns about national security during the reform, particularly in the high-tech industry. In other words, this reform will not be popular. Additionally, the reform will also threaten the roles these industries play in the global supply plan. Expectedly, the reforms are likely to be met with significant opposition from these corporations.

Time is opportune to contemplate environmental issues considering the increasingly extreme weather and the more frequent natural disasters. In the near future, what Taiwan could do is, similar to the US, to adopt a whole-of-government approach, to engage in the legislative process to transform carbon emission goals into policies and include all relevant departments and agencies in the discussion. Additionally, Taiwan could utilize existing frameworks such as the Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF) to spearhead bilateral and multilateral cooperation and exchange ideas on topics such as strategies for dealing with climate change and plans for personnel training. These efforts will help the government to connect to the international community and raise its visibility. In practice, the US government often allocates funds to build the necessary infrastructure for developing and researching green energy to motivate industry reform. Taiwan should do the same.

Thanks to the efforts in containing the spread of COVID-19, President Tsai is currently enjoying high approval, which could be utilized as momentum to initiate energy reform. The summit held by the US this time serves to advocate for climate reforms in front of other major powers, showcase its leadership, and assess if other countries hold similar views on this issue. Taiwan should seize this opportunity to demonstrate that its ideas are in line with the US and other like-minded countries on issues besides containing China’s rise.

(Fang-Yu Chen (chenfan6@msu.edu) is Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, MOST, Taiwan. Twitter: @FangYu_80168

Yao-Yuan Yeh (yehy@stthom.edu) is Associate Professor of International Studies and Chair of the Department of International Studies and Modern Languages at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Twitter: @yeh2sctw

Austin Wang (austin.wang@unlv.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Twitter: @wearytolove

Charles K.S. Wu (wu721@purdue.edu) is PhD candidate of Political Science at Purdue University. Twitter: @kuanshengtwn)

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