The Politics of Taiwan’s Energy Challenge

The Politics of Taiwan’s Energy Challenge

The Politics of Taiwan’s Energy Challenge

Taiwan’s energy challenges are intertwined with the island’s democratic politics and its active environmental movement. Indeed, many of the early social movements during the 1970s and 80s were driven by the local population’s environmental concerns. These were non-political movements that focused on the negative impacts that rapid industrial growth starting in the 60s had on the local environment—from large housing projects, highways, hydropower, and nuclear power plant, among other infrastructure projects. When the Nationalist Party lifted martial law in 1987, which had prevented the formation of the now ruling-party (which was formed in 1986), leaders of these social movements saw an opportunity to transition from trying to effect change from the outside to actively governing by joining the political process by becoming party members and lawmakers. In 1992, in the first direct legislative election in Taiwan, the newly formed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 51 seats out of 161. Scholars contend that support from the environmental movement was among the significant contributing factors that led to the DPP’s electoral success. As a result, environmentalism is engrained in Taiwan’s political fabric. 


The Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT)—which was the ruling-party of Taiwan’s government from 1949 to 2000 and controlled all its bureaucracies including state-owned enterprises—oversaw the “economic miracle” that made Taiwan into one of the “four Asian tigers” of the early 90s. The pace and scale of Taiwan’s economic growth was nothing short of remarkable. Between 1952 and 1982, economic growth was on average 8.7 percent. The gross national product (GNP) grew by 360 percent between 1965 and 1986. Between 1961 and 1986, Taiwan’s real GNP grew from US $4.5 billion to almost US $7.2 billion, representing an average annual growth rate of almost 9.0 percent. Per capita income rose to US $3,784 in 1986 from only US $142 in 1961, reflecting an average increase in relative terms of 6.8 percent per year.

But this “miracle” was not by divine intervention, it was the result of a calculated, one dimensional, ‘pedal-to-the-metal’ economic growth policy that suppressed political freedom, came at a great cost to the environment, and above all else required a stable source of energy supplies. Between the 1950s and 1980s, during this period of economic boom, military tensions between Taiwan and China were extremely high. Taiwan and China had multiple skirmishes along the Taiwan Strait that culminated in two crises in the 1950s. Tension reached a boiling point in the 1970s as the United States prepared to switch recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As the ruling party then, the Nationalist government had to contend with the inevitability of de-recognition—coupled by the global energy crisis of the 1970s. The energy crisis of 1973, caused by the Yom Kippur War, disrupted energy prices globally and led to a slowdown in overall economic growth in Taiwan, which prompted the Nationalist government to accelerate the adoption of nuclear energy.

Taiwan built with unbelievable pace three nuclear power plants with six nuclear reactors by the mid-1980s within the time-span of less than a decade (with a combined output of 4,927 MWe net). In fact, Taiwan’s plan for nuclear power went further back than the 1970s when the state-owned utility, Taipower, created two departments in the mid-50s and 60s to plan the introduction of nuclear energy. In 1973, the Nationalist Government announced the “energy policy for the Taiwan area”, and there has been a concerted effort to develop indigenous sources of energy, mainly nuclear energy

The Politics of Anti-Nuclear Energy

The anti-nuclear movement in Taiwan is not a recent phenomenon. While Taiwan watchers are familiar with the 2013 anti-nuclear protests in which hundred of thousands participated in, annual protests against the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant actually began as early as 1989. The protests were galvanized in part because the Taiwan government had secretly built the Lanyu nuclear waste storage facility off the island’s southeastern coast in 1982. Local residents were told that it was a canned fish factory and the people found out only after its true purpose was exposed in 1987.

The Nationalist government’s unbridled policy for economic growth and energy security following the 1970 energy crisis came at a great cost to the environment and spurred pubic concern and opposition. Interestingly, the confluence of the external as well as internal political environment, created a fertile constituency for the political opposition to co-opt and cultivate. Indeed, there is a political symbiosis between the early environmental movements that challenged the KMT’s economic policy and the formation of the DPP. It is perhaps no surprise that an anti-nuclear clause and a pro-environmental platform were enshrined in the DPP charter at its formation in 1986.

The symbiosis is not only reflected in policies adopted by the DPP but also through prior activists becoming party members and even lawmakers. When the DPP first came into power in 2000, it began creating space for environmental NGOs to participate in national-level policy committees (e.g., National Advancement for Sustainable Development Committee, Nuclear-Free Homeland Communication Committee) that had previously been closed and dominated by the policy preferences of the Nationalist government that governed Taiwan for more than four decades. 

Yet, when the DPP first came into government it quickly realized that opposing a policy cannot be a policy in itself and that it had to put forward alternatives to nuclear power if they were going to stick to its principles. As one scholar observed, the anti-nuclear movement underwent a “metamorphosis” and many became advocates for renewable energy. But it was also not as simple as turning on or off a switch, there needed to be an industry to support this shift to an alternative energy source. At the turn of the 21st century, there began a concerted but imperfect effort to cultivate and develop renewable energy into viable industry. After carefully considering the energy technology options, the previous DPP administration passed the renewable energy plan in 2005. This plan focused particularly on the scope for developing commercial solar, wind, fuel cell, and biofuel energy technologies. The goal of the plan was to generate 6.5 GW—about 10 percent of Taiwan’s energy needs and enough to replace existing nuclear power plants—from renewable sources by 2020, and simultaneously to create renewable energy industries for the island.

It should have been no surprise therefore that President Tsai Ing-wen made non-nuclear homeland the hallmark of her vision for Taiwan’s energy policy. The Tsai administration’s goal is to eliminate nuclear power from the mix by 2025, as well as to reduce the proportion of coal from over 40 percent of generation to 30 percent. Natural gas’ share is to increase from the current 35 percent to 50 percent. Renewable energy sources, especially offshore wind and solar, are to provide the remaining 20 percent. Despite these clear schisms in the history of Taiwan’s energy politics, the fault lines do not reside in different objectives. Energy security is a priority for both the DPP and KMT, but rather the two parties diverge on strategies for achieving these objectives.

Both major parties seek clean solutions to the country’s energy scarcity. While DPP supporters want to see less reliance on nuclear energy, it shuns cooperation and development of other energy sources with China that could offset Taiwan’s level of nuclear dependence. Meanwhile, the KMT also proclaims the need for non-polluting power but is invested in nuclear power and open to cooperation with China. However, waste-management issues and safety practices still elicit public concern especially after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. In addition, as Beijing’s aggression towards Taiwan intensifies, the possibility of seeking cooperation with China may not be politically sustainable under future governments.

According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Taiwan Thinktank in June 2016, a month after the Tsai administration came into government, 80 percent of the respondents supported the government’s renewable energy plan, and 68.5 percent believed that Taiwan’s environment was most suitable for the development of solar energy; 50.8 percent said wind power. Only 7.1 percent of the respondents stated that they did not support the government’s renewable energy plan. However, according to another poll conducted by the Formosa E-Newsletter in August 2017, after the mid-August 2017 blackout, the percentage of supporters for non-nuclear 2025 notably dropped from 58.1 percent to 45.5 percent from the year before. While public opinion in Taiwan is generally supportive of the Tsai government’s policy to shift towards renewable energy, public skepticism remains about its viability.

The main point: Environmentalism is engrained in Taiwan’s political fabric. Because of the impact that the extraction, production, and transportation of energy resources have on the environment—the two issues are almost inseparable. While public opinion in Taiwan is generally supportive of the Tsai government’s policy to shift away from nuclear, public skepticism remain about its viability.