Life & Art

Is Taiwan in the wrong time zone?

19 October, 2022

Taiwan is in the GMT+8 time zone, and that makes sense geographically, but moving one hour ahead would give us more daylight when we need it, potentially saving energy and helping more of us enjoy the great outdoors.

By Lee Faulkner

When I moved to Taiwan, one of the first things I noticed was how early it got light in the mornings; I urgently needed a good set of blackout curtains so I could sleep to a decent time. Similarly, I noticed how annoyingly early it got dark, at a time when most people were either still working or on their evening commute home. It seemed to me that Taiwan was wasting a whole lot of daylight and that we were in the wrong time zone. Why does Taiwan deprive itself of what nature provides, by having so much daylight while most of us are still in bed?

Geography and history

During the Japanese occupation Taiwan, perhaps not unsurprisingly, followed Japan and ended up using GMT+9, one hour ahead of what we’re on now. After the Second World War it moved to GMT+8. Taiwan then sporadically experimented with daylight saving, where you move forward one hour during the summer and then back again in the winter, but this was abolished in 1979.

Taiwan’s longitude is about 120°E, almost exactly one-third of the way round the planet from the Prime Meridian, the zero degree longitude line in Greenwich that all time zones are measured from. It is, therefore, perfectly logical for Taiwan’s time zone to be one-third of the way round the 24 time zones that the world divides itself into, that is, 8 hours ahead of GMT.

Before the world invented GMT and time zones, cities and countries set their own time by fixing 12pm by reference to the “solar noon”, the point of the day in which the sun is at its highest elevation; the solar noon in Taiwan is very close to 12pm, so being on GMT+8 fits perfectly with that too.

All very logical and scientific then, but logic and science aren’t the exclusive determinants of the way we live today, so we need to look beyond them. At the height of summer in Taipei the sun rises at 05:05 and sets at 18:45 - look out of your window and have a look at the number of people on the streets at 05:05 - hardly anyone - compare that with the number at 18:45 - pretty much the whole population is on the move. In the depths of winter, the sun rises at 06:35 and sets at 17:10 - again, how many people are outside at 06:35 compared with 17:10? If you add one hour to everything I’ve just said you can begin to understand why I think we’re in the wrong time zone, and need to move.

Moving is green
One of the arguments put forward in support of more daylight in the evenings as opposed to the mornings is that it saves energy. A study by the US Department of Energy in 2008 stated that daylight saving caused about 0.5% less energy use per day. But the conclusions were not definitive - other studies have shown the opposite, so the details about where and how you carry out any investigation into energy savings are crucial.

A UK Parliament report in 2010 on the effects of a permanent forward shift of one hour in the UK time zone made a similar conclusion, namely that the effects of doing so “are likely to be small in magnitude and may even be uncertain in direction”.

I am not aware of any large-scale studies specific to Taiwan that prove or disprove the argument here. Would, for example, the reduced use of electric lights in the evenings be offset by the greater use of air conditioners because we’d all be home for an hour longer at a hotter time of day? Or would people spend more time outdoors?

Taiwan might be able to cut its power usage, but we’ll probably never know unless we try it. So, are there other reasons for shifting time zones or using daylight saving?

Reasons to move
One of the many problems with our youth today is that they spend far too much time indoors glued to their phones, tablets and computers. This is causing problems with deteriorating eyesight, growing levels of obesity, and increasing levels of depression from fewer and fewer options for social interaction. These are huge problems in their own right, so the least we can do is to stop making them worse. If kids had one hour more of daylight in the evenings, they would have one hour more to hang out with their friends in the park, play sport, dance, or whatever else takes their fancy. One hour more outside is one hour less in front of a screen, and when you’re outside you’re more likely to move and to socialise.

Accidents are another important reason why we should consider moving an hour ahead - Taiwan’s traffic-related death rate is the highest of what we consider our developed peers - Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. This might be due to the relatively large number of individuals who get around by scooter and motorbike in Taiwan, but I would posit that it’s also due to the fact that the evening commute, when people are most tired, is generally done in the dark. I would bet a lot of money that if we moved an hour ahead these horrible statistics would improve.

And there is crime. It is, I think, true to say that criminals don’t like getting up early and prefer the cover of darkness to misbehave. If they had one hour less darkness in the evenings to perform their worst, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t adjust their schedules to fit, and overall crime would go down.

Politics and business
As with everything in Taiwan, “China” is a major consideration here.

Despite the geographical enormity of China, it has only one time zone. This means that at the time of the equinoxes, when everywhere on the planet has exactly 12 hours of day and night, it gets dark in Urumqi in the extreme west more than two hours later than it does in Shanghai in the extreme east.

Presumably China has only one time zone, despite its almost-continental size, because of the need to demonstrate and fulfil some kind of “one-country-ness”. Compare this with the USA which has four time zones in its mainland. Do these multiple time zones make the USA any less of a country? And what about Russia, which has eleven?

From a business perspective we can’t ignore the fact that 40% of Taiwan’s external trade is with China, and being on the same time zone as your biggest trading partner is practical and convenient for both sides.

So, should Taiwan stick with the same time zone as China just to support the unification aspirations of the ROC constitution and the Chinese Communist Party? Maybe. Would China get riled if Taiwan moved zones? Maybe. What about if you’re a diehard separatist - would removing any link to China’s single time zone actually be a good way of maintaining some kind of distance? Maybe. And what priority do we place on convenience for companies trading with China? Whichever point of view you take, this is one of those issues that would simultaneously please and agitate everybody and nobody, a bit like so many other issues in Taiwan today!

Permanent move or daylight saving?
As I’ve argued, there are many possible reasons why moving one hour ahead could be beneficial for Taiwan, but we really have no proof of whether these theoretical benefits would be borne out in practice; we can make some assumptions, but there is no other way other than trying it out for a few years and closely monitoring and measuring the impacts. I think the case for at least trying is overwhelming, but I’m sure others would disagree.

We do have a choice as to whether the time zone shift should be all year round or for the summer only - either we could go for GMT+9 all year, or we could again adopt daylight saving and move to GMT+9 from March to October but stay on GMT+8 during the winter months. Adopting daylight saving might be disruptive, but that disruption would only be temporary as people got used to it.

Many countries in the world use daylight saving - the European Union was going to abandon the practice in 2021, with each member state being able to choose whether it wanted to stay permanently on winter or summer time, but this has been placed on hold and daylight saving remains. The Sunshine Protection Act was passed by the US Senate in March 2022 but hasn’t been considered yet by the House of Representatives - although the idea was to abandon daylight saving, the intention was to make the forward shift in the spring permanent all year.

On balance, Taiwan has got to try moving time zones, either all year round or by readopting daylight saving. That’s the only way we’ll find out if the posited benefits are real - I have no doubt they would be. We could save energy, save money, boost the leisure industries, get our kids outside more, address growing childhood obesity and mental health, and so on. These are all extremely important issues that are too important to ignore for the sake of a bit of temporary disruption, so let’s try it. For me, I’d just be happy to sell my blackout blinds, and have an extra hour for a beer outside in the daylight.

Lee Faulkner is a Fellow of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, the UK’s actuarial body, and has more than 30 years’ experience in the world of financial services in Asia, Europe and Latin America. He is a Taiwan Gold Card holder and now lives in Taipei.

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