Sustainable development is a global problem, one that is becoming more serious by the day, one that spans professions and disciplines. Climate change and access to food and water are two relevant concerns; then there is population growth, aging, resource scarcity, health, urbanization, poverty…these are the many fronts of sustainable development.
There is no shortage of problems facing the world. In Taiwan, the most serious threat is climate change. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2011, Taiwan was the second most at-risk nation in the world for 2009. It is no coincidence that 2009 was the year when Typhoon Morakot blew through Taiwan. Water is another of our problems in Taiwan. The drought and water shortage in the first half of the year showed just how serious these problems are becoming. Food, while not immediately troubling, will be a huge stumbling block. Taiwan imports most of its food; in times of peace imports will continue as usual, but once something happens to end that peace Taiwan may just find her ports and her stomachs empty. Stagnant population growth and population ageing are very serious obstacles to sustainability. Plainly speaking, as the population grows older, who will remain to support each generation of the elderly? Taiwan’s problems are the world’s problems, only smaller. Poverty is not as severe in Taiwan as elsewhere in the world, and urbanization in Taiwan has not reached the same level as other countries, where there are cities that teem with tens of millions of people. Our problems may be smaller, but that does not absolve the government and the people from working together to deal with them.
On Taiwan and the “Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act”
Firstly, the government ought to define their goals and their direction; then they need to follow through with clearly defined policies that the public can follow—only then will the people change. Right now, the top priority for the government is using the moveable resources available to them to solve sustainability problems like those outlined above. Most pressing is carbon emissions—Just how do we cut emissions? In June this year Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan passed the Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act, and the Taiwan government announced their reduction goals in an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which aims to see a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 from the current baseline, or 20% when compared to 2005. By 2050 they intend to slash GHG emissions to 50% of the 2005 number. These goals show that the Taiwanese government is serious about emissions. It is without a doubt a clearly defined policy, but policy alone is not enough. With policy must come workable measures, including financial and management measures; and then there is implementation and promotion. The government must tell the public what they intend to do in the clearest of terms lest the people just stand and watch from the sidelines. If it is not made clear to the public what needs to be done, it will be hard-going for everyone involved.
Stopping tendencies like population ageing require the government to encourage childbirth along with measures that let parents raise their children without undue worries. Government plays no small role in this. The public needs to understand these problems and pressure the government to initiate solutions. If nothing is done, time will make the decision for us.
On COP21 and “The Next Industrial Revolution”
COP21 Paris is one of the most decisive moments in modern human history. From the industrial revolution of the 18th century to now, we have continued to live in a world literally fueled by combustibles. Coal, oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels upgraded our civilization from one powered by humans and animals to one powered by fire and electricity. We have enjoyed the fruits of civilization, but have also produced a lot of CO2 emissions in the process, which have in turn led to global warming and unsustainable lifestyles. That is why these problems are so important this year. This will be the first time in its history that the UN will make emissions reduction legally binding. With legal force, it will be much more effective than the Kyoto Protocol. Sure, the Protocol has been well received, but it is essentially all the bark without the bite—it lacks the legal consequences that make it anything more than a gentleman’s agreement. COP21 is different. As of mid-October, 148 countries have submitted their planned pledges for GHG emissions, which together account for more than 85% of carbon emissions. Therefore it is very likely that we will reach a successful agreement this year at COP21.
Legally binding agreements on emissions are not unheard of. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer restricted the in and out-flow of products that lead to ozone depletion. This has had a huge impact on Taiwan, where 70% of trade is in exports. Taiwan’s INDC follows announcements by the Executive Yuan, which state that if everything continues as is, emissions will need to be reduced by 50% by 2030, which is equivalent to a 20% reduction in 2005 emissions. Many businesses in Taiwan are worried—what does a 20% reduction look like? And what impact might it have on business? If we look at an average year, the 20% reduction would mean 2.4 months of no water and no electricity; 2.4 months without coal, gas, or oil for power plants. Obviously, it would not be feasible to do this all at once. But if we start enacting parts of the plan incrementally, year by year, from 2015 to 2030, then businesses will have 15 years to adapt to the changes. Households have already made some harsh choices; for businesses this will be even harsher. It will mean altering the business landscape of Taiwan. No longer will it be so simple for big polluters and energy users to do business. Instead, low-emissions operations will be the trend for future business. You might even say that the trend will inaugurate the Next Industrial Revolution. Whereas the first industrial revolution was fueled by combustibles, the Next Industrial Revolution will be characterized by development and innovation in their absence. Still, ordinary people will be affected no less than business: clothing, food, housing, transportation, logistics, and even air conditioning will follow in the transformations effected by this new revolution. The house-building industry will have to become more energy-efficient: a good example is the zero carbon homes policy in the UK. All in all, housing design will see some massive changes in the future.
Today’s civilization was nourished in part by fossil fuels. Tomorrow’s civilization will mature by weaning off of them. No matter what, humanity will not allow itself to return to a lower standard of living, so balancing sustainability with living quality is the next challenge we face. One example might be that tags on clothing may be required by law to state how much carbon is included in is production; we have already begun to see labels like this. These are the things we must do if we really want to ensure that the 2-degree Celsius ceiling isn’t broken. COP21 is a decisive moment in that regard; it will be a turning point for climate change.
On the Tang Prize in Sustainable Development
I think that the Tang Prize in Sustainable Development is really quite special. Past prizes have focused on a single area, but we know that the world and its problems are more complicated than just this or that issue. Sustainability is a unique problem for humanity, one with a breadth that we have never before encountered. It touches a multitude of disciplines and areas of knowledge; it goes beyond nations, it concerns all government departments, and by definition it is inter-generational. So for the Tang Prize to include a prize for sustainable development is to give a concrete example for the people to follow, to spur them on to think about these problems. It may be that, a million years into the future, humanity will have ceased to exist, but our planet will still be here for quite a while longer than that. We’ve got to be clear about that: the Earth will be here no matter what. Whether or not we survive is the question we need to be concerned about. So the burden is not on the Earth to provide sustainability, but on humanity to live sustainably.
The prize can help us understand the larger issues and ignore merely personal problems. Everyone needs to step up and engage with these issues together, because they are certainly not going to be solved by any one individual. Sustainability, in its very essence, is a long-term project; thinking only about the problems we will face tomorrow morning, to say nothing of next year, is too short-sighted. Sustainability is a problem thought-out in units of hundreds, even thousands of years. We have to look further than the tip of our own noses when we look at these problems, because what we do today will have consequences for those living 100 years into the future. Sustainability is an intergenerational problem. Each individual stands on equal footing, in the same environment, so our purview needs to be larger, our sense of space needs to change, our perspectives need to change, our sense of the future needs to change. As the Tang Prize awards round after round of laureates, the prize will draw public attention to these problems, and it will do so on a wider international scale.
On Taiwan and COP21
What we learn at COP21 will be of utmost importance to Taiwan. It is essential that we in Taiwan absorb the ideas and trends discussed there so that Taiwan isn’t pushed off to the sidelines. The world will keep moving forward with or without you. So we must learn what problems the rest of the world is paying attention to, and what tools they will use to fix them—policy-related or otherwise. Weather is unprejudiced—whether it is deluge and mudslide, or draught and dust storm, climate change effects all nations, the only difference is degree. As mentioned above Taiwan is one of the most at-risk nations when it comes to climate change. So we ought to grasp the opportunity offered by COP21 to learn more about what other nations think or are doing about climate change. After all, sustainability is about surviving, together.