Recent forums on climate change and the environment, including last year’s COP 27, have indicated that cities play an important role in reducing carbon emissions and finding sustainable solutions. As COP 27’s panel on cities noted, cities are disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions, accounting for over 70 percent of global carbon emissions. To address this growing issue, cities have come together in networks such as ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), while the Biden Administration introduced the Subnational Climate Action Leaders’ Exchange (SCALE). For Taiwan, this represents an opportunity to showcase its role as a responsible global citizen while strengthening diplomatic relations at a subnational level. In addition to drawing upon Taiwan’s vibrant civil society and smart city capabilities, finding working solutions to combat climate change is a shared goal of cities in both Taiwan and the United States and would benefit both through greater cooperation.
Climate Action Through City-to-City Diplomacy
Conducting diplomacy on a local level has multiple advantages when it comes to both constructing climate policy and fulfilling Taiwan’s goals. From an environmental standpoint, the fact that cities are the main contributors to carbon emissions makes cities a fitting place to begin when looking for climate solutions. Additionally, researchers have found that cities are also better than federal governments at setting more ambitious goals to tackle climate change. This can be expanded into transnational climate diplomacy through city-to-city engagement and collective action organized through networks. Subnational diplomacy is particularly beneficial for Taiwan because it allows officials to interact with Taiwan without taking a clear stance on Taiwan’s international status and creates opportunities for Taiwanese cities to help promote Taiwan’s national brand. As a result of this strategy, Taiwan has numerous sister city partnerships with cities all over the world, with 131 of those sister city partnerships in the United States alone.
Although subnational diplomacy may be a more accessible form of outreach for Taiwan, it is not without its own obstacles. In 2021, Taiwan-based think tank Taiwan NextGen Foundation (台灣世代教育基金會) found that while subnational partnerships are important for building people-to-people ties, they are often under-publicized and rely heavily on the motivation of local actors. As a result of these challenges, a number of sister city relationships have become inactive, while some Taiwanese cities have begun to rethink their approaches. For instance, Chief of International Affairs for Kaohsiung City Evelyn Tzeng stated that Kaohsiung was no longer looking for new cities with which to sign partnerships, but instead was focusing on common areas of interest.
Current US-Taiwan sister city relationships are often cultural, economic, or civic-oriented, with partnerships hosting dragon boat races, holding festivals, donating personal protective equipment, and improving transportation. If local actors in the United States and Taiwan are able to discover areas of shared interest and capitalize on the benefits of working together on climate issues, then cooperation on climate policy could also be added to this list of activities.
Climate Action Through Intermediaries
Besides direct city-to-city interaction, another way in which cities can be involved is through an intermediary, such as shared membership in city networks or through non-profit organizations that do work in both countries. The Taiwanese non-profit International Climate Development Institute (ICDI, 國際氣候發展智庫) assists Taiwan’s transition to carbon neutrality by educating Taiwanese and encouraging dialogue between Taiwan and the global community through collaborative projects with governments, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations. Last year, ICDI jointly organized the Taiwan Climate Action Expo with the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the Biodiversity Research Center of National Taiwan University, and Cathay Financial Holding Co. The expo, held in Taipei, showcased concepts for addressing climate change, including the ICDI and AIT youth engagement program.
As in sister city partnerships, there is room for more US engagement at a local level. For instance, although ICDI partnered with AIT for the Taiwan Climate Action Expo and has continuing partnerships with Climate Action Network International (CAN), ICLEI, and WeGo—two city network organizations that also have member cities in both the United States and Taiwan—ICDI’s Sustainable Cities Forum has yet to secure the participation of any US mayors since the event first began in 2017. The most recent forum, the 2023 Kaohsiung Smart & Sustainable City Forum and ICLEI Member Assembly, secured a variety of local governance participants, including speakers from Hungary, the United Kingdom, Canada, Thailand, and Australia, making the lack of a US presence all the more noticeable. Additionally, of the partnerships listed on ICDI’s website, the only one that is based in the United States is Stanford University. The lack of US participation in events such as ICDI’s Sustainable Cities Forum is a wasted opportunity for US climate action leaders to learn more about Taiwan’s approach to tackling climate change and discover areas of common interest. In turn, this could potentially revitalize sister city ties.
Image: The signing ceremony for an MOU on local energy governance by ICLEI, ICDI and the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI, 工業技術硏究院) at the 2023 Kaohsiung Smart & Sustainable City Forum and ICLEI Member Assembly. (Image source: provided by ICDI)
Areas of Shared Interest
While Taiwan may be a more natural partner to the Pacific Islands, which share a more similar topography and climate to Taiwan, there are still many areas where Taiwan and the United States would benefit from sharing environmental data. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has acknowledged this at a federal level by signing an agreement with Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA, 行政院環境保護署) to address shared issues such as mercury monitoring, air quality protection, managing electronic waste, creating Eco-Campus school partnerships, and improving environmental literacy. Partnerships looking to establish new cooperative programs addressing climate issues could use these pre-designated areas of interest as starting points.
Beyond directly addressing climate concerns, there is also potential for the United States and Taiwan to cooperate on commercial and governance-related solutions to environmental problems. For instance, Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Water Resources Agency (WRA, 經濟部水利署) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC, 台灣積體電路製造股份有限公司) to install smart water systems in over 20 of their facilities. In addition to installing smart technology, TSMC contributed to improvements by donating new designs and upgrading the agency’s sensors. More recently, TSMC also announced that it would be opening a water recycling plant in Tainan. Owing to the fact that water conservation is also of critical importance to the United States, local US governments may be interested in either employing Taiwan’s smart water solutions or pursuing a similar public-private partnership (PPP) model. Other smart city projects that have been successful are: the Air Pollution Emergency Platform, which uses artificial intelligence to forecast air pollution levels and detect illegal emissions; and the Smart Aquaculture Monitoring System, which monitors water quality data to protect aquatic life. Smart Taipei has also partnered with Foxtron to develop green public transportation and are trialing a smart electric shuttle bus. By visiting Taiwan in-person, US mayors can see the benefits of using smart technologies and smart city planning that leverages cooperation between the public and private sectors to solve climate issues.
Moreover, these partnerships are not limited to only Taiwanese actors. Taiwan Power Company’s (Taipower, 台灣電力公司) MOU with the German-based company Siemens Energy is another recent public-private partnership on climate issues. Looking toward Taiwan’s goal to have net-zero emissions by 2050, the MOU aims to capitalize on Siemens Energy’s hydrogen blending technology to upgrade an existing gas turbine located in Hsinta Power Plant (興達發電廠). If Taiwan and the United States pursue greater cooperation at a local level, there may be opportunities for private industries to sign similar transnational agreements that would bring additional economic benefits.
In short, collaboration on climate action through cities would not only help strengthen local ties and reignite inactive sister city partnerships, but it would also showcase some of Taiwan’s biggest strengths—its civil society, good governance practices, and technology—while further solidifying Taiwan as a trustworthy partner in tackling global challenges.
- Utilize existing sister city agreements and prioritize cooperation on shared areas of interest: Due to potential interference from Beijing when creating new partnerships, cities may be hesitant to sign new sister city agreements. However, climate cooperation could help to revitalize stagnant sister city agreements or complement the programs of existing partnerships. To avoid creating more inactive agreements, interested parties should prioritize signing project-specific MOUs over general sister city partnerships.
- Publicize existing successes and programs while looking for local support: A lack of public knowledge about how sister city partnerships help the community has resulted in a lack of support for new agreements. In seeking new cooperation, interested parties should highlight the past successes of their partnerships and promote clear and concrete ways that the local community will benefit.
- Leverage interaction through non-profit organizations and networks: While there is some cooperation between Taiwan and the United States through AIT and at a federal level, more can be done to connect local communities in the fight against climate change. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could help Taiwan cities build people-to-people ties at a local level by inviting US mayors to participate in Taiwanese forums held by non-profit organizations and to learn more about areas of shared environmental interest with Taiwanese cities.
The main point: Taking into consideration trends in climate action that highlight the importance of cities in climate policy, cooperation on climate action could be an area of shared interest for US-Taiwan city diplomacy. Drawing upon existing sister city partnerships, shared membership in environmental networks, and Taiwan’s civic and technological strengths, local actors could cooperate on climate action initiatives that not only benefit the planet, but also strengthen people-to-people ties between the United States and Taiwan.
The author would like to thank Chang Yu-cheng (International Climate Development Institute), Sara Newland (Smith College), and Wu Shiao-yen (Seattle-Kaohsiung Sister City Association) for providing additional information that aided the writing of this article.