Opinion: Clear skies at New Year shows where Kaohsiung’s pollution is really coming from

As the factories shut down, Kaohsiung’s air has suddenly cleared for New Year. This is not a coincidence and the true facts of the root cause of Taiwan’s air pollution crisis cannot be overlooked anymore.

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Photo by David Spencer

Photo by David Spencer (By Taiwan News)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — I pulled back the curtains in Kaohsiung this morning to a highly unusual sight. A clear blue sky. The usual landmarks visible from my window, the downtown Hanshin Department Store and Shoushan Mountain were crystal clear, and there was no sign of usual haze which hangs over the city for most of the winter months and no shortage of the summer months too.

The usual landmarks visible from my window, the downtown Hanshin Department Store (Photo by David Spencer)

A quick glance at the air pollution index shows impressive figures across the whole of southern Taiwan, with a mixture of green and yellow readings showing that the air is all clean and safe to breathe.

(Screenshot of CWB website)

This has not been the case in this part of the country for many months now and is a situation which warrants closer examination. Why is the air suddenly clean now?

Air pollution is a big issue in Kaohsiung right now. There have been several mass public demonstrations about the issue and the City Government has even felt compelled to take unprecedented steps in an effort to tackle the problem.

Their response was to make all buses, MRT, and light rail journeys free during peak hours for three months. According to Kaohsiung City Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), if people were traveling less on scooters and in cars, the situation would improve.

The new policy came into force at the end of November and has, to date, had no discernible impact whatsoever.

That is partly because take-up of the offer has been limited. Public transports routes in Kaohsiung remain limited compared to Taipei and quite simply, many people cannot get where they need to go on public transport. But it is also clear evidence that the problem in Kaohsiung is not being caused by traffic pollution.

The situation today is further evidence of that. Lunar New Year’s Eve is the single busiest day of traffic of the year. A sizable proportion of Taiwan’s population is on the move today as they head home to spend New Year with their family. There are restrictions in place on the usage of the motorways and widespread congestion across Kaohsiung and much of the rest of the country. Yet, the air today is clear.

Another suggested cause of the air pollution has been unfavourable climatic conditions.  It is certainly true that today is marginally warmer than many recent days. But the air pollution in Kaohsiung has been almost constant since at least last November. It is inconceivable that climatic conditions have not changed markedly in almost four months and have suddenly lurched into favourable ones today.

So, what else is different today? Well, it is Lunar New Year’s Eve, a public holiday, and offices, business, and factories are almost all closed. Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s industrial heartland and the city, and indeed much of the south of Taiwan is littered with heavy industry and factories all pouring pollution up into the skies.

Other than a few core facilities, such as those which provide power and those which cannot easily be switched off at all, all of these are closed today. And the pollution is gone!

I have always been highly cynical of the claims that much of Taiwan’s air pollution blows across from China. A small proportion of it may do, but to say that is the main cause of the problem is, in my view, to abdicate responsibility.

It is, of course, true that many factories in China have also shut down today and so will not be generating much pollution too. But this pollution takes time to reach Taiwan and so the benefits of that switch off would not be seen here instantly. Equally, a look at the air pollution figures in China shows that whilst improved, it is still mostly marked as red and considered unsafe.

It seems to me impossible not to look at the situation in Kaohsiung today and reach the conclusion that if Kaohsiung City Government and the Taiwanese Government really want to tackle air pollution, they have to focus on dealing with Taiwan’s industrial pollution first and foremost.

I appreciate that these companies contribute to the economy and am certainly not advocating to close them down overnight. But stronger regulations and more enforcement of existing laws could make a swift and tangible improvement in air pollution in Kaohsiung and improve the lives and health of the people who live here.

I am not a betting man, but I would wager that the air in Kaohsiung will remain clear until early next week before the air pollution returns once more as the factories and industries come back online once more. The evidence is as categoric as it can get. It should be hard to ignore anymore. It is time that proper action was taken rather than the token gestures we have seen so far.