Taiwan out in cold on climate issue

by Mariko Kato

TAIPEI — A sightseeing train stands abandoned on a mountainside in southern Taiwan. The railway in Alishan, a popular destination for Japanese tourists, should be taking thousands of visitors every day past red cypresses for panoramic views.

But no tourists can get there because the road leading up to the alpine resort was swept away by mudslides when Typhoon Morakot devastated the area in August.

It is generally believed that the typhoon, which killed more than 700 people, grew into an unusually powerful storm because of global warming. But Taiwan, because it is not a member of the United Nations, is only being represented by NGOs at the Climate Change Conference that kicked off Monday in Copenhagen. Many Taiwanese feel that while participating at any level is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go.

“Because we are a highly industrialized country, not only do we want to set up a goal to match international standards, we also want to get into the carbon trading system,” Lyu-shun Shen, deputy foreign affairs minister, told reporters last month at the ministry in Taipei.

“It is not just for our benefit, but also for the benefit of the rest of the world, because if you cut Taiwan out, the system will not be complete.”

Not only is Taiwan victim to the severe effects of climate change, it is also one of the worst greenhouse gas emitters. Home to a mere 23 million people, it nevertheless accounts for 1 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to Shen.

Taiwan cannot participate in the Copenhagen conference as a national delegation because the U.N. does not recognize its sovereignty, mainly due to pressure from the People’s Republic of China. So it is being represented by four NGOs who are attending as observers, with the Environmental Protection Administration’s deputy minister acting as adviser.

Since Taiwan was ousted from the U.N. in 1971 in favor of Beijing, the breakaway island has been applying in vain to rejoin. But the Nationalist government that came to power last year adopted a new strategy and is requesting official participation in the U.N.’s specialized agencies such as the U.N. Framework Convention to Fight Climate Change, the organizer of the Copenhagen conference.

“(Participating in) specialized agencies fulfills the notion of meaningful participation, because they’re issue-based and meet the needs of the people,” said Anne Hsiao, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei, during a discussion earlier this month with other experts.

She added that without participation, Taiwan has to approach individual countries to ask about global standards and strategies.

Taiwan has long fought in vain for worldwide recognition as a country since the Nationalists fled mainland China in 1949 after the Chinese civil war and set up a government on the island. At Copenhagen, Taiwan’s NGOs are listed as hailing from “China,” which prompted complaints from their representatives last week.

Minimizing the effects of climate change is an urgent task for Taiwan, which has a high bill to pay after Typhoon Morakot ravaged its southern areas in August. The rainfall reached an unprecedented 3 meters over three days, and to undo the damage done by subsequent landslides and floods the government has set a four-year budget of 116.4 billion New Taiwan dollars (¥319 billion).

The storm was particularly damaging to the island’s tourism, with the cost estimated at NT$10.4 billion (¥28.5 billion).

Much of the devastation was around Alishan, a famous mountain resort in Chiayi County, where the reconstructed road leading up to it is not yet open to tour buses.

Despite attracting 1 million tourists this year prior to the typhoon, nearly 10 percent of whom were Japanese, the Alishan National Scenic Area Administration estimates there will be a drop of 750,000 visitors in total this year compared with last year.