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Talks may heat up and go nowhere but global warming isn’t waiting

by Jun Hongo

Eleven of the 12 years between 1995 and 2006 ranked among the 12 warmest years since 1850, and since 1993 the global sea level has risen by an annual rate of 3.1 mm.

The average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere in the second half of the 20th century was probably the highest in the past 1,300 years.

Detailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these global warming events were all believed caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions.

“Are we prepared to see people drown and driven out of their homes?” IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri asked during an interview in June with The Japan Times.

“That, I am afraid, will be a really sad day, when the human race allows something like that to happen,” he said.

The talks on climate change issues during next week’s Group of Eight summit in Toyako, Hokkaido, are expected to be just as contentious as previous discussions as disputes remain unresolved.

But meanwhile global warming will steadily proceed in visible strides, unchecked by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Experts agree time is running out for mankind to find and effect a solution.

In its 2007 synthesis report, the IPCC’s Nobel prizewinning group of scientists pointed out that climate change will probably have an irreversible impact — including the extinction of 40 percent to 70 percent of the species it assessed — if the temperature increase ultimately exceeds 3.5 degrees.

The report illustrates the intricacy and urgency of global warming — a crisis Pachauri warned there is little time to prevent.

“We must translate this awareness to real action,” he said, charging that countries have wasted “too much time” and some have been dragging their feet.

Since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, Japan’s short-term goal in curbing global warming has been to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

But statistics suggest that hasn’t been anywhere near possible, because effective action has not been taken.

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

Mirroring the lack of progress, the ministry’s annual report last month noted years with excessive heat have occurred frequently since the 1990s.

Japan has seen a 1.07-degree rise in the last 100 years, but the trend has accelerated in recent years, the report says.

A different study released last month by some 40 environment experts who were brought together by the ministry showed that a record 5,102 people were taken to hospitals for heat exhaustion last summer in Tokyo and 17 other major Japanese cities.

It was also reported that last August, the cities of Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture, and Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, each broke the national temperature record, reaching 40.9 degrees.

“Temperature rises and extreme weather conditions have definitely become more frequent in recent years,” said Yoshinobu Masuda, former director general of the Meteorological Research Institute under the Meteorological Agency.

While Japan has proceeded with campaigns such as Cool Biz, which promotes casual dress in the workplace to reduce reliance on air conditioners, Masuda said the nation needs to grasp the gravity of the situation and enforce strict curbs on carbon gas emitters.

“There must be stronger coordination between government and industry. An agreement to curb carbon emissions must be reached as soon as possible,” he said.

For the world to halve its carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 — which was proposed by the IPCC report — Japan must make use of reusable energy sources, including solar and wind power, Masuda said.

Also key to fighting global warming is for developing countries to commit to curbing carbon dioxide emissions, because they are on track to surpass developed states within a decade.

For this, Masuda, now an environment activist, reckons that developed countries must commit to medium-term emission-cutting targets. Only then would they be confident to come aboard an international framework to cut global emissions, he said.

“Setting a medium-term target and reaching the goals set under the Kyoto Protocol are key factors for Japan to win over developing countries. It must show leadership on the issue,” Masuda said, adding it should be Japan’s responsibility as G8 summit host.

The Meteorological Agency reported earlier this year that the global annual average temperature in 2007 was 0.28 degree above average, and the sixth-hottest year since 1891.

The IPCC said that if economic development remains dependent on fossil fuel, the planet could be 4.0 degrees warmer by the turn of the century. Although this rise may seem improbable, the effects of global warming have been around for years.

France reported that 14,802 people there died from excessive heat in August 2003 as major cities baked in 40-degree temperatures. Scientists fear further warming could trigger insect infestations, wildfires, expansion of arid land and the sinking into the sea of small island states.

“It’s clear that the world has been slow to take countermeasures against global warming,” said Masatake Uezono, an associate professor at the school of law and literature in Shimane University.

Uezono, an expert on environment issues, agrees with Masuda’s opinion that Japan can contribute by committing to a medium-term target. The lack of a proposal would signal that the government and industry have failed to reach a consensus, he said.

“I believe there is a persistence within the government to prioritize economic growth. Use of reusable energy sources, such as wind power, also hasn’t spread in Japan,” Uezono said.

But even this does not justify lack of action.

“Prime Minister (Yasuo) Fukuda has said that Japan’s midterm target will be announced at the appropriate time. He needs to realize that time has already come.”