Planting Trees an Empty Gesture*



By Wu Pei-Ing

professor of the department of Agriculture Economics,

National Taiwan University

 published in Taipei Times, June 9,2008 “Opinions”

Translated by Drew Cameron



        With oil prices and inflation on the increase, the president, the premier and other officials are trying to set good examples by cutting costs and leading simpler lives. There is no doubt this is aimed at encouraging Taiwanese to cut down on energy consumption to help improve the environment and overcome the tough economic times the nation is facing. Different ministries have either formally or informally announced various policies aimed at improving the environment and boosting the economy. One policy worthy of closer investigation was recently announced by the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), which involves planting trees in China.

        The EPA is considering delaying the introduction of the proposed energy tax to avoid making things harder for Taiwanese companies. Although economic development must continue, it involves pollution. The Kyoto Protocol states that the carbon dioxide absorbed by afforested and reforested areas can be included in the calculation of a nation’s greenhouse gas reductions. The EPA has decided to cut reductions this way because it does not involve any restructuring of domestic industry and would have limited impact on the economy.

        However, environmental protection groups have said that even if 60,000 hectares of forest were planted across Taiwan, not even 1 percent of carbon dioxide emissions would be absorbed. Therefore, the EPA has decided to plant trees in China to help cut Taiwan’s carbon emission levels.

        This reasoning is essentially based on the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. The CDM basically means that the more wealthy Annex I countries of the protocol can support carbon dioxide reduction plans of the developing Non-Annex I countries, for example by planting trees, and gain credit toward their own carbon reduction levels as a result.

        The problem with this idea is that while China has signed the protocol, it has yet to ratify it, while Taiwan does not even have the opportunity to express an opinion on the matter. The amounts China and Taiwan have resolved to cut their emissions by, or whether China and Taiwan are viewed as developed or developing nations, are absolutely irrelevant.

        With China, this issue is further complicated by the fact that a nation’s wealth is measured by per capita income. The logic behind this is simple: Wealthy nations have already enjoyed the benefits development has brought them and they are viewed as being responsible for the majority of the globe’s carbon dioxide emissions. This can clearly be seen from the fact that the combined emissions of the 36 Annex I countries of the protocol account for 70 percent of total global emissions.

        China, India and Brazil are three countries with huge potential for economic growth. However, they have not yet committed to reducing their emissions. This means that they will be watched closely as they have the potential to produce high levels of pollution.

        China presents an interesting case because it is viewed as a developing nation whose people predominantly have lower middle incomes, yet it accounts for 18 percent of all global emissions, similar to the US. The issue is further complicated because it is not clear whether China will be considered a developing or developed nation in the future.

        Moreover, signing agreements aimed at reducing emissions and committing to them is something that needs to be done willingly on behalf of a nation.

        Many countries are unwilling to commit to emission reductions because sacrificing economic development to help improve long-standing environmental problems created by all the countries is hard, especially when the benefits from doing so are not immediately forthcoming. The US’ refusal to reduce their emissions is a perfect example of this.

        International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol differ from organizations such as the WTO and the WHO, which every nation wants to join. It is safe to say that only nations isolated internationally such as Taiwan, countries under international pressure or those who want to set a good example for the international community would be willing to ratify such agreements. Basically, countries agree to such terms to improve their international image.

        Therefore, it is only a matter of time before Taiwan commits to decreasing its emissions, even though it will be near impossible to get China to do so in their race with the US to become world leader. It is, of course, also hard to say whether China will join the EU in their protest against the US and its emissions.

        Ultimately, the trees to be planted by Taiwan in China will absorb the carbon emissions of China only and even then, the amount of trees planted will be insufficient. So the idea that planting trees in China is a good way to substitute and improve Taiwan’s emissions is overly optimistic and in the end, essentially futile.


* :發表於June 9, 2008 Taipei Times, “Opinions”.