Taiwan and the UNFCCC: A Modest Proposal

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which entered force in 1994 and has been ratified by almost all countries, is the leading international institution working on climate change. The Conference of the Parties (COP) supervises implementation of the UNFCCC. To date, the Convention’s major achievement is the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for industrialized countries. From November 28 to December 9 of this year, COP 17 will meet in Durban, South Africa, to discuss the future of the Kyoto Protocol and other climate issues. Taiwan, excluded from the United Nations since 1971, is not permitted to sign these agreements or attend meetings. Having entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a “separate customs territory” in 2002 and the World Health Assembly (WHA) with observer status in 2009, Taiwan is now asking for observer status at the UNFCCC.

If the goal is really GHG reduction, the omission of highly industrialized Taiwan makes little sense. Taiwan, with 23 million people on an island of 36,000 km2, has a carbon footprint much larger than its size. According to the International Energy Agency’s Key World Energy Statistics 2010, Taiwan ranks 22nd in total volume of carbon emissions, 17th in per capita carbon emissions, and 13th in per capita electricity use. According to the Academia Sinica Research Centre for Environmental Change, Taiwan is responsible for about 1% of global carbon emissions. Considering that Taiwan’s population accounts for only 0.3% of the world total, Taiwan is one of the world’s major per capita contributors to GHG. More alarming yet, Taiwan’s per capita carbon emissions are growing at one of the fastest rates on Earth. If we are serious about climate change, Taiwan must be included as at least a junior partner in the endeavour.

Taiwan can also contribute significantly to climate change research. Due to its colonial past, Taiwan has climate data dating back a century. These data demonstrate that Taiwan’s average surface temperature has warmed at twice the global average. Simultaneously, a decrease in precipitation and a rise in sea levels are both higher than global averages. Taiwan’s geographic location straddles tropical and subtropical monsoon climates, but also has snowy mountain peaks, making it an important place for climate research. In addition, a densely distributed rain gauge observation network, Doppler radar network, and satellite receiving systems make Taiwan important for a regional typhoon warning system and the development of climate models. As an observer to the UNFCCC, Taiwan could make more effective and reliable contributions to global action and research on climate change adaptation, disaster prevention, and resource management.

Taiwan’s 2010 Master Plan on Energy Conservation and GHG Emission Reductions includes 10 areas of action. These guidelines target reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 2005 levels by 2020 and to 2000 levels by 2025. Taiwan’s private sector is participating in the plans, not only through energy conservation measures, but also by developing new products such as LED lighting and lithium batteries. Taiwan is the world’s largest LED manufacturer and the second largest solar cell manufacturer. Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund has increased resources dedicated to climate change projects with its diplomatic allies in Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific. Yet these efforts could reach further and more efficiently into other parts of the world if Taiwan were closely integrated into international organizations.

In September 2010, 18 of Taiwan’s allies expressed support at the UN for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UNFCCC. In May 2011, the European Parliament voted to support Taiwan’s observer status. Other political bodies passing resolutions in support of Taiwan’s bid include the Central American Parliament, the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures, the Australian Senate, and the Midwestern Legislative Conference of the Council of State Governments. If Canada were to add our voice of support, we would be in good company.

Of course, Taiwan’s desire for meaningful participation in the UNFCCC (and the International Civil Aviation Organization) is best understood in the historical context of their exclusion from the UN. When the People’s Republic of China replaced the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan at China’s UN seat in 1971 (UN General Assembly resolution 2758), President Chiang Kai-shek refused all suggestions, including one from Canada, that Taiwan maintain independent membership in the General Assembly. From 1993 to 2008, however, Taiwan tried annually to regain UN membership, under names of “ROC on Taiwan” or simply “Taiwan.” Each attempt was unsuccessful.

Since 2008, as part of rapprochement with the PRC, Taiwan ceased to ask for membership in the UN. Instead, Taiwan has pursued “flexible diplomacy” and a “diplomatic truce.” Under these principles, Taiwan gained observer status, with Chinese assistance, as “Chinese Taipei” at the WHA. Taiwan’s current request for the same status the UNFCCC is thus a very modest proposal, and in no way contradicts Beijing’s demands for the world to adopt a “One China” policy. This is all very pragmatic on Taiwan’s part, especially considering the alternatives. If only that pragmatism were more widely shared.

Following Palestinian precedents, Taiwan could ask for full membership in UN organizations. If a Palestinian ‘nation’ without a state can join UNESCO, then logically so can Taiwan, which has long been endowed with a state. The ROC on Taiwan fulfills, more closely than Palestine, all the criteria of statehood as defined in the 1933 Montevideo Convention: 1) a permanent population; 2) a defined territory; 3) a government; and 4) the capacity to enter into relations with other states. It is not necessary for all countries to have diplomatic relations with a state. Article 3 states clearly that “the political existence of the state is independent of recognition by other states.” Taiwanese acceptance of “Chinese Taipei” demonstrates a willingness to negotiate condominium relations with China in ways that the Palestinians would never contemplate with Israel. The world, including China, would be prudent to embrace such modest proposals. It is better to encourage an accommodative and enthusiastic new member to the UNFCCC than to contribute to conditions for a frustrated nationalism that could become the world’s next Palestine.




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