Having lived in both Taiwan and the US, the claim that Taiwan could outrank the US in environmental performance is on its face, sheer madness. I’ve had so much fun in the past pointing out just how stupid these international ranking systems are (Taiwan’s Competitiveness: GIGO, and Heritage Foundation: Taiwan’s Economic Freedom Declines) that I knew I was sure to be entertained by the absurdities of this one as well. First, the story from the Taipei Times:

In five areas, Taiwan was found to fully comply with international standards. These were in reducing water consumption, a decline in the timber harvest rate and in meeting international goals for indoor air quality, clean drinking water and providing adequate sanitation for its people.

While the US matched Taiwan in four of these five categories, the US — the land of unshaded suburban lawns and massive corporate farms — was found to have gone less than two-thirds of the way toward cutting excess water consumption to meet international norms.

China scored poorly in all five areas.

In terms of air quality, both Taiwan and the US do almost equally as poorly.

Taiwan scores 47.4 in the category, not much above the US’ score of 44.7. But while the US does well in fighting urban “particulates,” dirt that contributes to soot, Taiwan does much worse.

By contrast, Taiwan beats Washington easily in fighting ozone, or asthma-causing smog, with the US registered as making barely a dent in facing the issue, according to the study.

Just looking at the thumbnail in the Taipei Times, it is easy to see that the report compilers are clearly off their rockers. Taiwan — where 90% of households are not connected to sewer systems, with their waste running untreated to the sea — scored the same as the US in “providing adequate sanition” for its people. I suppose, relatively speaking, that each side considers its sanitation to be adequate.

David on Formosa was kind enough to point to the original report, which is online here.

Why did Taiwan score so well? Inevitably, the problem is one of methodology, and this one, like the previous one, contains biases that strongly favor Taiwan. First, here’s a list of what’s not in the report:

-human exposure to toxic chemicals;
-waste management and disposal practices;
-SO2 emissions and acid rain;
-recycling and reuse rates;
-lead and mercury exposure;
-wetlands loss;
-soil productivity and erosion;
-greenhouse gas emissions (beyond CO2);
-and ecosystem fragmentation.

All of these are significant problems in Taiwan, most much worse here than in the US.

A second problem is that Taiwan does not appear on many of the lists generated by EPI. For example, look on the list of densely populated countries — no Taiwan.

Some notable absurdities — Taiwan ranks 32 in environmental health. Well-publicized Love River clean-ups aside, there is no way that Taiwan beats Sri Lanka in any reasonable discussion of environmental health (Sri Lanka clocked in at 76). In Sri Lanka in the morning you can see wild elephants come to drink in reservoir outside Polonarruwa. The island is studded with game parks. And Taiwan? There’s no similarly clean lake with similarly amounts of wildlife near a similarly-important Taiwan urban area. Why does Taiwan rate so highly? According to the report, the EPI utilizes these indicators:

(Drinking Water, Adequate Sanitation, and Child Mortality) together with two measures of air quality (Urban Particulates and Indoor Air Pollution) to rank countries in terms of their performance on environmental health.

The problem begins when you look at the definitions. For example, Indoor Air Pollution is defined as “the percentage of households using solid fuels.” Naturally, in Taiwan this is zero. This is wrong in two key ways. First, pollution from indoor fuels in Taiwan is quite high — Taiwan’s women cook in smoking oil using gas and thousands of them contract lung cancer every year as a result. Secondly, of course, is the terrible air pollution, which naturally finds its way indoors. The drinking water definition is given as “percentage with access.” This definition again makes no provision for the fact that Taiwan’s water is undrinkable as delivered — it has to be filtered and boiled in every city except Taipei. In southern Taiwan no amount of filtering and boiling will make it safe to drink (a prominent Kaohsiung urologist I know distills all his drinking water — southern Taiwan has a bladder cancer rate many times the world average, he says). “Adequate Sanitation” is access to adequate sanitation. It says nothing about sanitation practices. In fact, Taiwan has no score in this category, and the report compilers appear to have used “drinking water” as a proxy for this value, as they say their methodology allows (the two are highly correlated).

The report scores nations by their proximity to goals. Incredibly, Taiwan scores 100 on water consumption. I’ve blogged extensively on the problems of overconsumption in Taiwan, most recently Water Policy in Taiwan: A Primer. The EPI report simply fell on its face here, and produced nonsense, even by its own variegated standards. The definition for “water consumption” is “water consumption, percentage of territory with oversubscribed water resources.” This looks like it is saying something intelligent, until one starts thinking about it. First, does “water resources” imply all the water that rains on Taiwan? If so, Taiwan is fantastically undersubscribed. Does it apply to potentially useful ones? Eighty percent of that rain rolls back into the ocean, so Taiwan has an actual deficit, and must pump groundwater. But if we include that, we are back into underconsumption. In fairness, though the report says nothing about the effects of water consumption — subsidence and habitat destruction, for example, it does realize that this is a problem, but decided that

However, these data are left out of the EPI aggregation at this time because of a lack of clear and globally consistent evidence demonstrating the negative ecosystem impacts of dams, and the potential offsetting environmental benefits of hydroelectric as a renewable energy resource.

Out here in the real world, the ecological destructiveness of dams is well-documented, and most environmental organizations are all grown up and do not consider hydropower a renewable resource. But I suppose when you are making a presentation to one of the world’s major capitalist meetings, it is bad form to point out the destructive effects of dams, which all politicians love. This confusion of dams as a renewable energy resource (dams are clean energy, but they have a fixed lifespan due to silting and cannot be renewed) gave big boosts to many countries.

In any case, Taiwan suffers from a permanent water usage deficit, which it makes up by pumping groundwater, and thus is chronically oversubscribed. Even worse, the island is racked by water shortages every year, especially in the north. The paper does say that it uses the Relative Water Stress Index in assembling these figures. Water scarcity, says one of the inventors of the system used by the EPI report, is measured in terms of water use relative to water supply. Unfortunately the key element, water supply, is not defined in any of the texts I had access to online.

I should add that one of the DPP’s more successful policies, little heralded, is river clean up. While Taiwan’s rivers remain a disaster by any standards, they have been improving steadily since the 1990s, and especially since the DPP took office. Yet, it seems incredible that Taiwan scores 19.8 (target: 1 mg/L) on nitrogen loading and the US scores 708. I have to wonder how that data was constructed.

Taiwan also got other boosts from the restricted and artificial construction of “environmental performance” — there is no logging in Taiwan, so it scored 100 on use of its forest resources. However, Taiwan consumes wood from elsewhere, and the EPI would have done far better to look at Taiwan’s wood imports and the origins, to see what effect Taiwan’s demand has on forests elsewhere. Because Taiwan spoils the forests of other nations, Taiwan gets an artificial boost here. The EPI does not reward afforestation programs either. Nor did it take into account a cultural preference — for many applications that take wood in western countries are handled with bamboo in Taiwan, which will not show up on a measurement that focuses on forests. Since the measurement focused on logging, it did not touch Taiwan’s most serious forest problems, illegal cutting of trees to plant betel nut and bamboo (and more). Additionally, Taiwan provided its own data on overfishing.

The EPI report went blatantly political with its discussion of “productive natural resources.” Its measurement for this? Agricultural subsidies. Where did it obtain the data? From the US and Europe. What is the target for this data — what standard do they have to conform to? GATT and WTO agreements. Give me a second to howl with laughter. Naturally, the five worse performers were Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Japan, Slovakia. The Swiss and the Japanese have drawn strong attacks from other nations for restrictions on imports. The idea that GATT and WTO standards can be taken seriously as proxies either for the way nations use their natural resources or for their level of subsidies is laughable. Further, for Taiwan, data on subsidies came from the Taiwan government yearbook. Yup. I kid you not.

The EPI report did add this about Taiwan:

The rankings of some countries are notably higher on the EPI [environmental performance index] than the ESI [environmental sustainability index]. This is particularly true of the United Kingdom, Germany, and Taiwan. This result suggests that they face significant long-term sustainability challenges but are managing their present circumstances well.

There’s lots good going on in Taiwan environmentally, and I look forward to continued improvement. When I lived on the corner of Chungshan and Chunghsiao in Taipei, right behind the train station, and in summer there were many days when I could barely breath even indoors. That era is over. But until they develop some way of becoming sensitive to the particular situations of individual countries, reports like this should be taken with a large grain of NaCl.