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Chih-Hsiu Shen: Why Taiwan should not have been excluded from Cop26

Taiwan’s deputy environment minister on why his country’s absence from the climate talks is bad for the planet, people and the global economy.

By Philippa Nuttall

GLASGOW: The UK promised Cop26 would be the most inclusive climate summit ever. Yet one country is not at the table. One minister is not allowed to get accreditation. He is in Glasgow, but he is not permitted to enter the building where the negotiations are taking place. Instead, he has to hold meetings in a nondescript business space on the other side of the river Clyde. The man in question is Chih-Hsiu Shen, Taiwan’s deputy environment minister.

Taiwan is prevented from participating in any UN bodies, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which convenes the conference of the parties (Cop). China argues, correctly, that only sovereign states can enjoy UN membership, and for Beijing, Taiwan is part of China and so not a sovereign state. Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken published a statement reiterating the US’s commitment to Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the World Health Organisation and the UNFCCC.

But the status quo prevails. “Unfortunately we can only participate in Cop26 as an NGO member, we cannot fully participate in any official activities,” Shen told me through an interpreter. “We cannot participate in our full capacity.” Members of his team can go into the conference centre, but they cannot feed into the negotiations.

At the same time, Chinese president Xi Jinping, worried about Covid, has opted to stay at home. And while the UK, the US and many others are aiming to hit net-zero emissions by 2050, China is sticking firmly to its 2060 target for such reductions.

Shen insisted Taiwan is playing its full role in tackling climate change and meeting the commitments of the Paris Agreement, even if it is not allowed to be a signatory of the accord. His very presence in Glasgow is to demonstrate that commitment. Shen refused to criticise China or the UN directly, but he was clear that acting alone is unsatisfactory.

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“Taiwan has always been positively active in taking all responsibilities related to global climate action,” he said. “We have, through domestic legislation, already integrated the net-zero 2050 [target] in our law. We hope other countries will support us and let us join these activities as a government. Climate change presents a threat to all countries. Only if we jointly take action can we solve the problem. If we miss any country in this joint effort it will be a disaster.”

Taiwan is already acutely experiencing the impacts of climate change. “In the first half of the year we saw drought and some reservoirs had capacity lower than 20 per cent,” explained Shen. “In the latter half of the year we experienced heavy rain and floods, and in the summer we saw record high temperatures in Taiwan.”

The country is putting into place various measures to make it more resilient to extreme weather, and wants to share its experiences with other islands or countries close to sea level. Technologies to collect rainwater and recycle it, and to reduce the risk of flooding are now in place. It is also working to maximise the use of resources given the economy’s heavy reliance on exports.

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Indeed, climate action is not just an environmental and humanitarian threat for Taiwan, but also an economic one. “The fact we are not allowed to join the world climate change conference has a negative impact on us because Taiwan is a major exporter of semiconductors,” said Shen. “If Taiwan is left out, it will have an impact on our industry and impact global supply chains.”

When Taiwan was plunged into its worst drought in nearly 60 years this spring, farmers were the hardest hit, but so were semiconductor – or computer chip – companies. Around 90 per cent of the most advanced microchips sold and used around the world are manufactured in Taiwan. Without them, the modern world would more or less grind to a halt, and producing these chips demands lots of water.

Making semiconductors also demands energy. While Taiwan’s economy is based on exports, its energy system is largely based on imports of energy, with 93 per cent of it in the form of oil, coal and gas. A small amount of power is supplied by hydropower, but this spring’s drought caused output to drop and, coupled with technical issues, the island has suffered blackouts this year.  

These incidents were “a warning that we cannot rely on one or two energies, and to prompt us to explore more renewable energy such as wind and solar power”, said Shen. Taiwan will draw up short, medium and long-term markers for 2030, 2040 and 2050 in the push for cleaner energy and industrial policies and to ensure the net-zero target is met.

In addition to encouraging an energy transition, “We need to reduce carbon emissions in processes of production and manufacturing, and to enhance energy efficiency,” said Shen. To achieve this, “We need technology and this requires collaboration between countries and industries.” In short, exclusion from international bodies and agreements is helping no one.

Despite being kept away from the action and having no influence on what is happening around the corner, Shen insisted Taiwan is hoping for an ambitious outcome, and that the country would follow whatever was agreed at the end of Cop26. “I hope all countries will agree on a very clear target, a clear legal framework that all parties can follow so that 2050 net zero is no longer an aspiration or just a pledge,” he said.

[See also: Fighter jets and street markets: Taiwan’s daily dissonance as tensions with China ramp up]

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