Japan climate effort needs rethink: experts

Prodding rest of world rings hollow when nation can't meet its own goals

by Jun Hongo

One of Japan’s goals at the Bali conference on climate change is getting legally binding emission controls placed on developing countries, but many experts doubt the nation’s ability to get its own house in order first.

“We cannot ask the developing countries for their efforts when Japan has yet to achieve its own set of goals,” said Shigeyuki Okajima, a professor at Otsuma Women’s University in Tokyo and executive director of the Japan Environmental Education Forum, an association of about 1,000 experts promoting environmental education practices.

“Despite the positive changes in the last couple of years, including better understanding of global warming, the situation in Japan calls for a fundamental shift by the government” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Okajima said.

The Kyoto Protocol, hammered out in the ancient capital in 1997, demands that Japan reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Although the government has tried to play a leading role in fighting global warming, calculations by the Environment Ministry reveal Japan is highly unlikely to meet its obligations.

According to the ministry, Japan emitted 1.34 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases in fiscal 2006 — a 1.3 percent decrease from 2005 but still above the 1.26 billion metric tons of 1990. Emissions peaked at 1.36 billion metric tons in 2003 and haven’t fallen below the 1.30 billion metric ton mark since 1995.

The government issued a report in October saying that under the worst-case scenario, Japan will release some 1.28 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2010, far short of its Kyoto Protocol goal of 1.18 billion metric tons.

Also in October, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda acknowledged during a meeting of the government’s Global Warming Prevention Headquarters that it will be “extremely difficult to attain the goal of the Kyoto Protocol.”

“Many of us have begun turning the lights off more frequently, or using fewer disposable chopsticks. But this is a good time to rethink what each of us should really do,” Otsuma University’s Okajima said of Japan’s lack of achievement.

Through his activities at the Japan Environmental Education Forum, Okajima has worked with everyone from schoolchildren to corporate managers to spread understanding of greenhouse gas emissions and how to lead an “Earth-friendly” lifestyle.

While concepts such as Cool Biz — the government-led movement to set summertime thermostats at 28 degrees to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions — have generally been well-received, the disappointing numbers reveal that the situation calls for a drastic change, Okajima said.

Fighting global warming has become a complicated issue that requires detailed education, and only through education is it possible for the public to grasp the gravity of the situation, he said.

“There are technological methods, such as the development of electric cars, as well as economic methods, including introduction of an environment tax, or legal methods, such as stipulating penalties for those who discharge a large amount of greenhouse gas. All are effective in their own way,” Okajima said.

“But what is really needed is to cultivate people with leadership, who do not feel that climate change is irrelevant to them like many politicians do today. We need to seriously consider the future of mankind.”

One signal of Japan’s lack of effort, Okajima said, was its decision to purchase carbon credits from developing countries and avoiding practical greenhouse reduction.

While the Kyoto Protocol has been signed by 174 nations, the agreement allows countries to buy greenhouse gas emission quotas, or “carbon credits,” from other countries that reach their target levels and are willing to sell their extra reduction. Japan chose to go this route last month when the government announced it would buy credits from Hungary.

Fukashi Utsunomiya, a professor emeritus at Tokai University, said the inclusion of carbon credit purchases on Japan’s agenda reflects its lack of sincere commitment to push domestic efforts to fight global warming.

“The system to purchase carbon credits is effective because the money spent will be used to promote better environmental technology in developing countries,” said Utsunomiya, author of “Kankyo Gyosei No Rinen To Jissen” (“The Theory and Practice of Environmental Governance”).

“But it should be a final option, used only after domestic efforts to decrease greenhouse gases have been tried to the limit.”

Utsunomiya, like Otsuma University’s Okajima, said interest in climate change among the public has been high, and the time may be ripe for strong government leadership to try new methods, including an environment tax.

According to 2005 government statistics, the amount of greenhouse gases from Japanese manufacturers and their factories decreased 5.5 percent compared with 1990, but emissions from households rose 36.7 percent and those from offices soared 44.6 percent.

Utsunomiya said the rise stems from an economy that is much stronger now than when the Kyoto Protocol was ratified, and that energy consumption is rising regardless of Earth-friendly products.

“Each of us must understand our responsibility in releasing greenhouse gases, because we all do it,” Utsunomiya said, adding that an environment tax would help evoke a sense of joint responsibility.

But Shunichi Murata, director of the Tokyo Office of the U.N. Development Program, said there is no easy fix for global warming.

“Social ethics must be cultivated, and collaboration between the government and the public is essential” to reduce greenhouse gases, Murata said during a news conference announcing publication of the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2007.

The report puts forward the notion that if every developed country released the same level of greenhouse gas as the U.S., the total would exceed the atmosphere’s tolerance by nine times.

And even a decade since Japan signed the Kyoto Protocol, the grassroots movement to promote energy conservation remains the most efficient way to counter global warming.

“Promoting the ethic is essential. We must begin thinking not only for ourselves, but for those in the developing countries as well,” Murata said.