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Oil refinery snub marks arrival of Taiwan's environmental movement

Taiwan has sidelined a proposal for a new factory that would have threatened endangered dolphins, signaling a new priority on environmental considerations.

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The president's remarks are a milestone victory for Taiwan's environmental movement after decades of seeing their concerns ignored. Environmentalists first became active here in the 1980s, especially after the deadly Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986, but made little headway under a previous Nationalist government that staunchly backed development.

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When the opposition Democratic Progressive Party held power from 2000 to 2008, officials brought environmental concerns into the fold, killing a Bayer pharmaceutical factory application and freezing earlier plans for a fourth nuclear power plant. But the opposition was widely faulted for stalling economic development, holding back wages and job creation.

But since 2008, environmental protests led by people who have seen enough development, particularly in their own backyards, have reached a new intensity as activists improve on organizational skills, media savvy, and making friends in parliament.

Over the past year, they have brought tougher air-quality inspections to an existing petrochemical plant that caught fire twice last year and organized large-scale antinuclear protests since the March 11 Japan earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis.

"It has been building for a long time," says Linda Arrigo, a US citizen who works with Taiwan's Green Party. Media images and films on climate change have raised public consciousness, she adds. "I think that has left a big mark in people's minds."

Balancing business with green initiatives

Seeking a balance between development and environmentalism, the government has made permit reviews more transparent, started monitoring the greenhouse gas output of major polluters, and set the ambitious emission reduction targets of cutting carbon dioxide by 2020 to 2005 levels of about 257 million metric tons.

These measures come as a stubborn haze often blankets much of industrial southwest Taiwan and the dense 23 million-population island's emblematic mammal, the Formosan black bear, dwindles to between 200 and 300 due to habitat encroachment.

Clean air and space for animals are not the only reasons behind the government's attempt to balance economic development, say economists and business leaders.

Although some foreign firms may avoid Taiwan in favor of regions with laxer regulations, others – especially those that prize social responsibility – will prefer the island over some of its Asian peers as environmental rules become more transparent or predictable even if they are more numerous, they say.

Case-by-case decision-making that allows some projects but scraps others would discourage outside investment.

"The reason is because of a lack of policy transparency and consistency, as firms would have difficulty in ensuring that their investment projects will go smoothly even if they got approval from the government," says Cheng Cheng-mount, chief economist with Citibank Taipei.

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