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Taiwan is an island nation situated off the east coast of China. Although the island of Taiwan makes up for 99 percent of the landmass, there are some smaller islands off the west coast which also form part of Taiwan. It is estimated to be around 36,000 square kilometers and had a population of 23.5 million in 2020.
Towards the end of 2020, the Air Quality Index for Taipei indicated a “Good” level of air pollution, with a US AQI figure of 43, according to recommended levels as suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Other airborne pollutants which were measured were PM2.5 - 10.5 µg/m³, PM10 - 16.5 µg/m³, ozone (O3) - 52 µg/m³, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) - 24.5 µg/m³, sulphur dioxide (SO2) - 2.9 µg/m³ and carbon monoxide (CO) - 355 µg/m³.
In 2019, the average air quality as reported by the reputable Swiss company, IQAir.com was 13.9 µg/m³. For 9 months of the year, the air quality was “Moderate” (12.1 – 35.4 µg/m³), July was seen to be “Good” (10 - 12 µg/m³) and August and September attained the WHO recommended level of less than 10 µg/m³.
In March 2014, following a report made by the Taiwan Healthy Air Action Alliance and Taiwan legislators, it was seen that the air quality in Taiwan was worse than that in Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, collectively known as the Four Asian Tigers. Particular attention was drawn to the annual average levels of the fine particulate matter PM10 with readings in excess of 50 µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic meter). The capital city of Taipei recorded an annual average of 47.1 µg/m³ which is higher than the limit set for European countries at 40 µg/m³. Taipei has exceeded this level for the last decade.
The main source of air pollution in Taiwan is from domestic incineration of organic matter and the combustion of fossil fuels. The topography of Taiwan plays a major role in air pollution because of the range of high mountains, the air does not circulate easily and therefore becomes trapped.
During a survey conducted in 2013/2014, the Environmental Protection Administration's (EPA) Department of Environmental Monitoring and Information Management reported extremely high concentrations of “fugitive dust”. This is merely the dry earth that is sucked up by the wind and carried along by it. This is at its worst during the low-flow season for the rivers when large areas of their banks become exposed. The wind dries out the soil and gusts of wind then propel the suspended dust towards the cities. Concentration levels of 250 µg/m³ have been recorded, but over the years, there have been some huge spikes with readings of 2532 µg/m³ in 2015 in Lunbei. In 2009 in Puzih city a reading of 1793 µg/m³ was recorded. It is claimed that these figures were influenced by the 2009 Typhoon Morakot which caused torrential rain which washed loose soil downstream where it dried up on the banks of the river after they had subsided.
A 2015 report by the National Taiwan University put forward the claim that traffic is the main source of pollution within the cities and the microscopic particles of PM2.5 are mainly produced by the thermal power plants located in central Taiwan. Readings in Taipei city for the annual average of PM2.5 was 20 µg/m3 and 30 µg/m3 in Kaohsiung. The acceptable limit was set at 15 µg/m3 which is 3 times higher than the acceptable level in the USA and 5 higher than that as recommended by the WHO.
Based on data originating in 2004 for the following decade, it was revealed that the annual concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) surpassed levels of 40 µg/m3 as set by the European Union, every year.
During the winter months, Taiwan’s air quality is compromised by polluted air blown in by China. The pollution standards index (PSI) readings, which are based on the highest levels of five major air pollutants, namely: - PM10 which is particulate matter measuring less than 10 micrometers in diameter, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and ground-level ozone (O3) at most stations reached unhealthy levels, while some stations in central and southern Taiwan even reached hazardous levels. During these winter months, figures show an increase in hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses and doctors are sought out to alleviate symptoms such as itchy eyes, coughing, wheezing and the onslaught of asthma attacks.
During December 2015 whilst researching the prevalence of lung cancer in central Taiwan, it was revealed that the Taichung Power Plant and the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant of the Formosa Plastics Group were responsible for around 70 percent of the air pollution in central Taiwan. Large volumes of sulfur oxides (SOx) were released into the atmosphere.
In 1996 it was claimed that there were almost 9 million motorbikes and almost 5 million cars on Taiwan’s roads and the number is increasing on an annual basis. Motorbikes are the main form of transport for most adults. Many of these older machines operate on a two-stroke motor which is thought to be the largest producer of air pollution in Taiwanese cities. It has been suggested that these older machines are slowly phased out and cleaner technology takes over. Newer motorbikes automatically switch the engine off when forward motion is no longer detected to prevent an idling motor still running. This helps reduce air pollution around busy road junctions in the city center.
On the first and fifteenth days of the lunar calendar, religious rituals are carried out. These involve the burning of what is called “Ghost Money” and incense sticks. Ghost money is symbolic copies of real money that is burnt at large temples by way of celebrations. The measured PM10 values in these large temples are noticeably higher at these bi-monthly occasions. The levels are between 5 and sixteen times the normal value. It is also noted that the local neighborhood experiences an increase in the PM10 levels for this reason. Readings are commonly found to be around 15.1 µg/m3.
One of the cleanest cities in Taiwan is Taitung which is situated on the southeast coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In 2019 the average PM2.5 reading was 8.7 µg/m3 which classifies it as achieving the WHO target figure of less than 10 µg/m³. For just 3 months, it failed to be within the target, instead falling into the “Good” level between 10 and 12 µg/m³. The overall average for 2019 was slightly better than the two previous years when levels were recorded as 9.3 µg/m³ in both 2018 and 2017.
For several years, air pollution has been a major problem in Taiwan. A number of laws were passed as far back as the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the microscopic particulates of PM2.5 and PM10 were identified in 2013 that the government started to reassess the situation. Even though Taiwan has no legal standing in the UN, it has unilaterally agreed to conform to the terms and conditions as laid down in the Kyoto Protocol. 14 key measures were introduced in 2014 which is hoped will combat the rise in air pollution. Taiwan endures “Red Alert” periods throughout the year when the quality of air becomes noticeably worse. This occurs for approximately 6 percent of the year. The reasons behind this phenomenon are beyond their control. The wind direction and cold air masses bring polluted air over from mainland China, Japan and South Korea. They also suffer from the effects of biomass burning in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. The aim is to reduce the annual average of fine particulate matter by over 18 percent and to bring down the number of “red alerts” from almost 1,000 to 528.
Over 6,000 companies have been identified as main contributors to air pollution and they have been instructed to update their boilers so that they do not cause the large amounts of pollution that they currently do. Restrictions will follow should they fail to conform.
There are currently over 80,000 heavy industrial forms of transport that do not meet requirements regarding their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. They will be required to obtain a government certificate showing that they now comply or they will face being excluded from industrial zones and the port area.
Motorbikes are to be reformed as well. The old two-stroke machines are to be phased out and newer less polluting models are being urged to be purchased. Other measures include the encouragement to use public transport where possible and for large companies to switch to the use of railways as a way of transporting their freight. Electric vehicles or EVs are being promoted and their purchase is being subsidized. A plan is underway to expand the production of hybrid vehicles and electric motor scooters. There are currently four urban transit systems operating in Taiwan and another is currently under construction. In Taipei, the metro opened in 1996 and operates eleven lines throughout the city and has 109 stations in the network. Both Multiple Units and VAL are used in the network. Their source of power is electricity.
The agricultural sector is to be reformed as well. The burning of straw before a new season’s crop is hoped to be reduced by 90 percent. Even the catering industry has been asked to install filters on their chimneys to reduce their smoke emissions. And the general population is being asked to stop the ceremonial burning of ghost money and incense twice a month.
In central Taiwan, it has been noted that since the Tunghsiao Power Plant started to use gas-fired electricity the sulfur oxides decreased dramatically. In 1997, 20,000 tons were produced, by 2010 this figure had dropped to just 7.8 tons per year. This equates to a 99 percent reduction and is a clear indication of what can be achieved with the right methods.
There is no doubt that urbanization causes air pollution in the metropolitan city centers and weather conditions can also be an influencing factor.
Extensive studies have been conducted in Taipei between 1993 and 2012. The MRT was not built in 1993 so the figures make a good comparison. Figures recorded in Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung cities were compared to data from a rural area in Hualien County. As expected, the figures collected from the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (TEPA) and meteorological data were closely analyzed and the levels from urban areas were seen to be much higher than those in rural areas. Kaohsiung City has the highest levels of ozone and sulfur oxides (SOx) and particulate matter PM2.5 and PM10.
Having studied the figures from the TEPA, it clearly shows an improvement in the quality of air in Taipei since the inauguration of the MRT in 1996. At that time, the TEPA began informing residents about the effects of polluted air and offered advice as to how to combat it.
Studies were conducted between 2000 and 2013 which looked at a possible connection between air pollution, meteorological factors, and COPD-related health disorders, especially in the Taipei area. Information about the levels of air pollutants was collated with meteorological factors such as daily temperature, relative humidity and air pressure and visits to people suffering from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) by the ED (Emergency Department). A link was soon discovered between increased levels of ozone and sulfur dioxide and an increase of ED visits to patients’ homes. This was more noticeable when the air pressure and humidity were higher than normal.
This showed conclusive proof that there is a strong connection between air pollution, meteorological conditions and health.