Interview series: Taiwanese Nobel laureate talks on sustainability, Tang Prize

2014/10/13 17:00:00
Lee Yuan-tseh (left) and Gro Harlem Brundtland in Taipei in Sept. 2014.

Lee Yuan-tseh (left) and Gro Harlem Brundtland in Taipei in Sept. 2014.

Taipei, Oct. 13 (CNA) The government and people of Taiwan should seriously reflect on former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland's advice on sustainable development issues, said Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh.

Brundtland, who won the first Tang Prize in Sustainable Development this year, "hit the nail on the head" when she pointed out the problem of low taxation and fossil fuel subsidies in Taiwan during her visit in September, Lee told CNA in an interview in early October.

He pointed to one of Bruntland's speeches in which she noted that Taiwan's tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) are much lower than those of Norway.

"I heard yesterday that your businesses pay no more than 17 percent (in income tax)," Brundtland said in September. "That's a low level. They should pay more. Don't look at the U.S. to compare because they don't have a good tax system."

Lee said that in Norway, taxes fund free public facilities, education and a good retirement system, leaving young people free to choose a career in the arts or any other sector that interests them without so many worries.

Taiwanese parents in contrast often try to stop children from becoming artists out of concern that they will not be able to support themselves, the 77-year-old chemist said.

The government can resolve the problem by redistributing wealth through tax increases for the rich or a land value increment tax, he suggested.

He also echoed Brundtland's questioning of why Taiwan is pushing a petrochemical industry when it is not a producer of petroleum, and agreed that subsidies for chemical fuels should be scrapped.

"Who benefits from cheap energy? Not the ordinary people. We should really reexamine ourselves based on the many suggestions she gave us," said Lee.

"Our government should scrap energy subsidies and levy a carbon tax if we want to pursue the path of sustainable development," he said. "Without doing so, it would be impossible to transform our industries."

He noted that Taiwan's carbon dioxide emissions measure around 11.5 metric tons per capita a year, many produced by the petrochemical industry.

The former president of the International Council for Science and convener of the Tang Prize jury also spoke about why judges selected Brundtland as the first recipient of the sustainable development prize.

Lee said the 75-year-old Brundtland was awarded the prize with "over half of the votes" because judges overwhelmingly agree she is the one individual "who has so far made the biggest contribution to the sustainable development of the world and human beings."

Often called the "godmother of sustainable development," she chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) from 1984-1987. The WCED coined the term "sustainable development" in a 1987 landmark report, which laid the groundwork for the 1992 Earth Summit.

On the Tang Prize itself, Lee said the most successful thing about this year's first prize was that the selection process was fair and judges were able to operate independently from any external influence to select the best laureates.

He was proud that the names of the laureates were able to be kept confidential for months up until their official announcement.

"Had the selection process not been so strict and the elected laureates not so reputable, the award would not have succeeded from the start," said Lee, also a former president of Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top research institute.

Lee said the Tang Prize Selection Committee which he chaired sent out thousands of invitations to qualified individuals and institutions around the world, asking them to nominate candidates for the four categories of the award -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology and rule of law.

Similar to the Nobel Prize, nomination for the Tang Prize is by invitation only. Winners of the award were selected by panels of judges convened by Academia Sinica that comprised prominent researchers and scholars from Taiwan and abroad, including Nobel laureates.

Although the NT$50 million (US$1.65 million) prize money for each category attracted much attention, Lee believes what ultimately determines the success of an award is the quality of its laureates.

As an example, Lee cited Albie Sachs, the Tang laureate in rule of law, who received a standing ovation during one of his talks in Taiwan.

Lee praised the former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa for his relentless pursuit of justice and freedom despite facing intense oppression.

Chinese-American historian Yu Ying-shih, the Tang winner in sinology, was also an outspoken supporter of democracy and a fair society and has a great influence on young people, he said.

Lee said if the biennial Tang Prize can maintain its high standards, it will become a highly influential international award.

But it takes time -- two decades, he predicted.

"It is not likely for an award to win international applause in its first year," Lee said.

Nevertheless, he has high expectations for the future.

"I hope the Tang Prize will be able to contribute to the development of human society," Lee said. "I hope we will be able to select the best laureates and impress the world."

(By Christie Chen)
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