Even the benevolent cannot have it both ways
Leaders from six cities and counties in Central and Southern Taiwan pledged on Tuesday to ban the burning of petroleum coke and coal in a bid to prevent the spread of PM2.5 particles. Particularly hazardous to health, these particles often reach middle to high levels in areas of Central and Southern Taiwan, causing a risk to those with vulnerable cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Without a doubt, we welcome this initiative and hope that local and national authorities will further address the cause of air pollution, the effects of which have crossed geographical boundaries to become one of the leading causes of death for six out of 10 people across the nation. Yet, we are equally wondering if the heads of those municipalities and counties have also considered the consequences of their decision to shut down power plants and factories on the mid- to long-term. Maybe all alternatives should have been clearly stated before embarking on such new policy. Among other pending questions are, how are we going to produce enough electricity in the future? Can we afford to ban the burning of petroleum coke and coal all at once, and close nuclear power plants at the same time? Can we decrease energy production without encouraging proper energy-saving measures? In theory yes, but in practice we should remember that one cannot have it both ways in real life. This applies even to benevolent politicians.
According to the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), PM2.5 concentrations were at their highest in some townships in Yunlin County and Changhua County at over 71 milligrams per cubic meter in late March, meaning that outdoor activity should have been avoided if possible. The same was true on the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu where PM2.5 levels were in a middle range of 42-47 milligrams per cubic meter, due to offshore pollution over the same period. A measurement of 35 milligrams per cubic meter or lower is usually considered “low range,” but it is still a potential health hazard for those in poor health. According to the latest statistics released Tuesday by the Health Promotion Administration (HPA), air pollution could be responsible for an increased number of lung cancer cases in Taiwan, in addition to smoking and exposure to cooking fumes. In 2012, the same data show that 11,692 people were diagnosed with lung cancer, which represented a 6-percent spike from the previous year. If you consider all types of cancer altogether — colon, lung, liver, breast and oral cancers, as well as prostate, gastric, skin, thyroid and esophageal cancers — the number of new cancer patients increased by 4,012 from the previous year to a record 96,694 patients. With an incidence of new cancer diagnoses in Taiwan of 415 cases for every 100,000 people, or one in every 223, in 2012, there is little wonder that various types of pollution might have increasingly affected our health without our realizing it. That is worrisome. It is important for all government agencies to thoroughly execute stricter pollution controls.
At the same time, we are left wondering how local and national leaders are planning to address soaring energy consumption without considering the need for electricity produced by nuclear power. During an interpellation session last month, Premier Mao Chi-kuo ( ) said the Executive Yuan’s Atomic Energy Council ( ), a nuclear safety regulator, will wait until the end of 2016 to decide on whether to extend the lifespan of the First Nuclear Power Plant ( ). The First and Second Nuclear Power Plants, launched in 1978 and 1981, respectively, are scheduled for decommissioning between 2018 and 2023. A third plant, located in Pingtung County, which began operations in 1984, is also scheduled for retirement starting in 2024. The state-run Taiwan Power Company ( ) has already stated that Taiwan faces a power shortage if the three operational plants are decommissioned according to schedule and if the mothballed Fourth Nuclear Power Plant never launches. If the local governments now join hands in shutting down the plants burning petroleum coke and coal, we might have to consider using bike generators in order to charge our smartphones in the near future. That is a healthy option but not a feasible one on a large scale.
In fact, solar, wind or hydraulic energy should be used alongside the burning of petroleum coke and coal, as well as nuclear power, for a proper energy transition, meaning a longterm structural change in energy systems. There is no energy miracle; the sun does not always shine and the wind is unpredictable. In order to offer Taiwan the same “Energiewende,” a term that means energy “turn” or “revolution,” as Germany, politicians should adopt a coherent policy and avoid marketing slogans. By admitting that one cannot have it both ways, the candidates in the next presidential election must clearly explain to voters that the energy revolution will have side-effects like raising the cost of electricity, increasing costly subsidies and turning energy consumption into a quasi-planned economy. That is also the inconvenient truth behind energy transition and political slogans.