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The case for the ‘sectoral approach’

by Jun Hongo

As hosts of this weekend’s Group of Eight energy minister’s meeting in Aomori Prefecture, delegates from Japan will be actively promoting the “sectoral approach” to curbing global warming.

While details of the plan have yet to be firmed up, some believe the process gives developing countries a chance to cut emissions without hampering their own economic growth as it contains equitable reduction targets and includes major gas-emitting countries.

Following are questions and answers about the approach:

What is the “sectoral approach”?

The Kyoto Protocol set quantified greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for major industrialized countries based on past output levels. The sectoral approach, however, focuses on promoting optimal energy use within each industrial sector.

The first step would be to determine how much greenhouse gas each industry — including steel, cement and electricity — would emit if it were running at optimal energy efficiency. The national target would then be set according to the totals calculated for each industry.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda officially advocated the approach in January in a speech in Switzerland, suggesting it would be an effective framework to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol when the agreement expires in 2012.

Why was it introduced?

The Kyoto Protocol had its share of deficiencies — the most glaring being the absence of major emitters, including the United States and China. By international consensus, the succeeding protocol must include a flexible and equitable outline that brings all major emitters on board.

Japan argues that the sectoral approach would do this because it specifies the technologies in each sector that could be used to reduce emissions.

During a press briefing last month, Environment Minister Ichiro Kamoshita stressed that the sectoral approach would make it scientifically possible to grasp reduction potential because it objectively identifies the methods needed instead of simply imposing blanket goals for each country.

An annual energy report released last month by the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, which operates under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, also said the sectoral approach would help developed countries aid others by transferring energy-efficient technologies.

How effective would the approach be?

World-renowned Japanese technology could come in handy in cooling off an overheated planet.

As one Foreign Ministry official said, Japan’s effort to formulate efficient energy use “is nothing new” because its knowledge in the field has been growing since the oil crises that hit in the 1970s.

For example, the ANRE report suggests that if Japan’s most efficient coal-based power-generation technology is adopted by the U.S., China and India, that alone would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a combined 1.3 billion tons yearly, a figure slightly more than Japan’s total annual emissions, according to the report.

Are there downsides?

Some developing countries claim the sectoral approach is an attempt by industrialized countries to evade national targets.

At the Group of 20 Gleneagles Dialogue in Chiba in March, delegates from developing countries also argued that the approach would bind them to cut emissions in accordance with an international benchmark and become an obstacle to their economic growth.

Japan hopes its technologies serve as incentives for developed countries to join the new framework, especially since cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t translate into curbing economic growth when the sectoral approach is properly applied.

However, some experts suggest that even if the most energy-efficient technologies are introduced worldwide, it would not end global warming as long as the sum of greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow.

Is the sectoral approach gaining support?

Due to efforts by Japan to explain the method, Chinese President Hu Jintao welcomed the proposal last month, calling it a “very important measure.” The U.S. and the European Union have also been relatively supportive.

Meanwhile, U.N. adviser and Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs praised the approach, calling it “exactly right.”

“Japan has made extremely important and constructive proposals on how to proceed on climate change,” he said at a press briefing last month. He encouraged Japan to continue promoting the initiative and provide technological support to developing countries in order to help create sustainable energy systems.

What issues lie ahead?

In addition to promoting the advantages of the sectoral approach, choosing sectors may prove a complicated task as priorities vary by country.

Those with vast territory may be unwilling to impose a limit on transportation, while those with extensive steel production may insist on an undemanding goal for the industry.

Developed countries with efficient technologies must also present feasible and impartial ways to transfer them to developing countries as well.