Cablegate: Environmental Sustainability Index - Taiwan

Published: Mon 2 May 2005 06:03 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Environmental Sustainability Index - Taiwan
1. (SBU) Summary. In January 2005, Yale, Columbia and the
World Economic Forum published a joint study that ranked
Taiwan as the world's second worst economy in terms of
environmental stewardship. The low ranking troubles policy
makers in Taiwan because of significant environmental
progress in the last decade. One of the principal
organizers of the report met with Taiwan's Environmental
Protection Agency (TEPA) on April 20. During that meeting
several flaws in the input data used for Taiwan became
apparent. Taiwan policy makers are likely correct to
believe that Taiwan's ranking is unjustly low. One reason
for the low ranking may be that, due to Taiwan's unique
political status and lack of access to international
organizations, the study had limited access to reliable data
for Taiwan. End Summary.
2. (U) Taiwan recently ranked 145 out of 146 "nations" in
the "Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI)" published by
Yale's Center for Environmental Law and Policy, the Center
for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN)
at Columbia University, and the World Economic Forum.
According to the ESI Executive Summary, ESI
"benchmarks the ability of nations to protect the
environment over the next several decades. It does so by
integrating 76 data sets tracking natural resource
endowments, past and present pollution levels, environmental
management efforts, and the capacity of a society to improve
its environmental performance - into 21 indicators of
environmental sustainability."
ESI then compares each "nation" and rank orders them.
Taiwan was ranked only second to North Korea in terms of
worst performances.
Ranking Counterintuitive
3. (SBU) As soon as the report came out, environmental
policy makers and academics in Taiwan expressed surprise and
disbelief. The report defies common sense for anyone who is
familiar with some of the notable improvements in Taiwan's
environment over the past decade. Looking at Taipei's
efforts with respect to solid waste alone explains why
Taiwan's environmental leaders find it hard to believe that
Taiwan's "ability to protect the environment" was ranked at
the bottom of the ESI. In the early 1990s, Taiwan's largest
city Taipei was notorious for the trash heaps common to most
street corners. Now, as a result of environmental
stewardship spelled out below, Taipei's streets are notably
litter free.
4. (SBU) In 1992 Taipei instituted a regular recycling
program. Then in 1995, Taipei implemented daily trash
collection service, effectively eliminating garbage piles
from Taipei's streets. In 2000, Taipei implemented a
program to charge consumers for the costs of trash disposal
by charging for mandatory government garbage bags instead of
incorporating the fee into their water bills. This has led
to a 47.2 percent reduction in the annual amount of solid
waste generated in Taipei. In 2003, recycling in Taipei
became mandatory for many products and each year new
measures enhance the amount and range of materials that must
be recycled. Beginning in 2005, even kitchen food waste is
required to be separated and recycled.
5. (SBU) Taiwan also boasts some of the world's strictest
air emission regulations (and fines) and has similarly
demonstrated significant progress in reducing air pollution
over the past decade. For example, the proportion of days
that Taiwan had a composite Pollutant Standards Index (PSI)
level above the "unhealthful" level of 100 fell to 2.61
percent in 2003 from 6.98 percent in 1994. (The PSI is an
indicator that measures air pollution levels of five major
pollutants - ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide,
nitrogen dioxide, and particulates). To provide
perspective, using a similar air pollution composite index
called the "Air Quality Index" (which in addition to the
five pollutants in the PSI also measures lead levels), in
2003, 17.5 percent of the days in Washington, DC were above
the unhealthful level of 100.
6. (SBU) Though Taiwan has made progress in reducing its air
pollution and solid waste generation in recent years, Taiwan
still has plenty of room for improvement in its
environmental stewardship. For instance Taiwan has been
notably less effective in addressing water pollution than
air and waste pollution. In fact, currently less than 10
percent of Taiwan's wastewater is treated as compared to an
average wastewater treatment level of approximately 59
percent in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development) countries. Taiwan also faces some other major
environmental challenges. In addition to being highly
industrialized, Taiwan has one of the highest urban
population densities and vehicle per capita densities in the
world. As a result, while Taiwan has had some success in
reducing industrial air pollution, motor vehicle air
pollution has increased.
7. (SBU) Comment. While it might have been equally surprising to
find Taiwan at the top of the ESI ranking, given Taiwan's
notable progress over the past decade in reducing air
pollution and solid waste, Taiwan's rock bottom ESI ranking
is simply counterintuitive. End Comment.
--------------------------------------------- ----
Taiwan's Special "Status" May Explain Low Ranking
--------------------------------------------- ----
8. (U) Marc Levy, one of the principle collaborators of the
ESI study (the Associate Director for Science Applications
at Columbia's Center for International Earth Science
Information Network) met with Taiwan's Environmental
Protection Agency (TEPA) on April 20 to discuss Taiwan's
9. (SBU) Mr. Levy noted that the "strong" preference of the
investigators on the project was not to use data from
governments, but instead to rely on data from international
organizations. Levy recognized that, in Taiwan's case,
collecting data was extremely difficult because Taiwan is
not a member of most of the international organizations from
which the ESI project collects its data. Levy noted that
Taiwan has been "systematically excluded from the data
collection systems upon which the ESI relies" and that the
ESI receives the largest proportion of Taiwan's data through
"alternative" routes. In fact, where for most economies, 2-
5 percent of the data came from the national government, in
Taiwan's case over 40 percent of the data came from Taiwan
government sources. Levy stated that, as a result, much of
the input data used for Taiwan have not gone through the
same "comparability tests" as the data used for other
Questionable Data
10. (SBU) During Levy's meeting with TEPA officials,
several flaws in the data used for Taiwan were illuminated.
Most notably, one of 21 indicators used for all of the
"nations" compared in the study was supposed not to have
been applied to Taiwan. That indicator called,
"participation in international collaborative efforts" ranks
the "nations" on how well they cooperate with international
organizations. According to Levy, the researchers were
supposed to exclude this indicator from Taiwan's ranking
because of Taiwan's unique political situation. Upon a
closer look, a clear mistake on the part of the ESI project
was revealed. Instead of putting a blank for Taiwan on
this indicator as intended (thereby nullifying the impact on
its ranking), Taiwan was given a numeric zero, the lowest
possible ranking for that category.
11. (SBU) Further questions about the veracity of the input
data used for Taiwan were raised during the meeting between
TEPA and Levy. One TEPA official while flipping through
the report noticed that Taiwan scored extremely low on the
indicator called "reducing waste and consumption pressures."
TEPA looked at the input data used for Taiwan for that
indicator and found that the figure the ESI used was 100
times greater than the one published by TEPA. In fact, the
figure ESI used suggests that Taiwan with a population of
approximately 23 million generates the same amount of waste
as the United States with a population of approximately 296
12. (SBU) During the meeting between Levy and TEPA, AIT's
ESTOFF also noted that Taiwan appeared to have scored
particularly low with respect to the indicators on "land"
and "biodiversity." While this makes intuitive sense with
respect to the 29 percent of Taiwan's mostly flat and highly
populated land in the northern and western coasts of Taiwan,
it would not appear to account for the close to 70 percent
of Taiwan's land that is highly mountainous, forested and
sparsely populated. Upon a closer look at the data used to
calculate Taiwan's grade for "land", Levy revealed that the
report qualified only .1 percent of Taiwan as "wilderness."
13. (SBU) Levy was most concerned about the outright
mistake in putting down a "zero" instead of a blank for the
indicator regarding cooperation with international
organizations for Taiwan. With respect to the other
apparent incongruencies discussed, he conceded that the
figures should be further researched. Levy, however, made
clear that the report would not be repealed and that the
best Taiwan could hope for was that a correction notice be
sent out or posted on the Project's website. Levy's main
goal was to improve the data collection for Taiwan in
anticipation of the next ESI report in about two years. To
that end, it was agreed that TEPA would send a
representative to meet with the ESI collaborators at Yale
and Columbia Universities and review in more detail the
input data used for Taiwan. TEPA also invited the ESI
collaborators to come to Taiwan to work with TEPA towards
improving the project's data collection methods for Taiwan.
14. (SBU) Based on the meeting between Levy and TEPA, it
appears that the data used for Taiwan was flawed and that
Taiwan's dismally low grade and ranking are unwarranted.
As Levy noted, the poor quality data is largely a result of
Taiwan not being a member of the international organizations
upon which the bulk of the data used is collected. This is
also the first year in which Taiwan has been included in the
index. Taiwan was not a part of the ESI pilot studies
conducted in 2001 and 2002. As a result, the scope of the
difficulties in data collection for Taiwan may not have been
realized until now. This is a clear case where Taiwan has
been disadvantaged by its inability to participate in
international organizations. However, ESI is apparently
quite willing to work with Taiwan to improve data collection
for the future. More reliable data collection methods
should enable Taiwan to repair its likely undeserved
exceptionally poor rating for environmental stewardship.
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