The Ugly Isle

When the Portuguese discovered Taiwan they called it Formosa – the beautiful isle. While vestiges of that beauty remain if Taiwan were discovered today it might well be called “The Ugly Isle”. Taiwan’s economic miracle has come at a huge ecological cost.

The recently released Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) ranked Taiwan 145th out of 146 countries. Only North Korea was ranked lower than Taiwan[1,2].

It is hardly surprising and any visitor to Taiwan could see why. More seriously it raises serious questions about Taiwan’s future. Is Taiwan caught in a downward spiral that it can’t get out of? Taiwan’s government policy is so focused on economic (read industrial) development that environmental issues are simply not a priority or at least don’t get the attention they deserve.

The construction of the fourth nuclear power plant is a case in point. Chen Shuibian was elected president in 2000 with a promise to halt construction of the fourth nuclear power plant. However, in the face of major political problems he reneged on the promise. What was most disturbing was that the government failed to make any significant efforts to develop alternative energy policies or to educate the people about the dangers of nuclear power.

During the 1980s when Taiwan’s era of martial law came to an end environmental concerns were at the top of the agenda in public protests[3]. However, now it seems there is little public protest about environmental issues despite the fact that things haven’t got any better.

While the people of Taiwan enjoy a high standard of living in most respects there must be serious questions about how long this can continue. Taiwan is heavily dependent on the importation of resources for energy and raw materials to sustain its economy. Despite this there has been negligible investment in either energy conservation or renewable energy generating capacity[4].

Climate change is an issue that has barely registered on Taiwan’s radar. The fact that Taiwan is excluded from participating in many international organisations might count for something. However, even if Taiwan had had the chance to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol one wonders if there would have been any significant efforts by the government to meet the emissions reduction targets. There seems to be a lack of basic public awareness about climate change.

There are few bright lights on the horizon for Taiwan. Perhaps Taiwan will serve as a canary in the coal mine and act as a wake up call showing the rest of the world the failures of industrial development. It would be much better if Taiwan could seriously embrace the need for ecologically sustainable development and lead the world forward to a cleaner, greener future.


  1. Taiwan’s environmental sustainability seen low (Taiwan News 27 Jan. 2005)
  2. Environmental index puts Taiwan at bottom of the heap (Taipei Times 20 Feb. 2005)
  3. “The Environmental Nightmare of the Economic Miracle: Land Abuse and Land Struggles in Taiwan”
    Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 1994, Vol. 26, No. 1-2, pp. 21-44.
    by Linda Gail Arrigo

  4. Energy and Sustainable Development in Taiwan
    Sustainable Energy Watch 2002 Report
    by Gloria Kuang-Jung Hsu