Ice maker fearing a global thaw

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo News

MINANO, Saitama Pref. — As many as 100,000 people from Japan and abroad visit Tetsuo Asami’s shaved ice parlor every summer in Minano, a small town in the Chichibu region of Saitama Prefecture, seeking out his products that use naturally frozen ice and are known for their rich taste.

Although Asami, 58, is happy with the thriving business, the threat of global warming makes him unsure whether he will still be able to make natural ice a decade from now.

“I think our customers travel all the way to Chichibu for shaved ice because they sense that they may not be able to eat it in 10 years’ time given rising temperatures and deterioration in the environment of the mountains” which generate nutritious water for natural ice, Asami said.

Running the 117-year-old family business, Asami is one of only four existing natural ice makers in Japan, down from some 100 around the 1930s. The three others operate in Tochigi Prefecture.

“Given the major climate change I have seen in recent years, such as warm winters, it has become increasingly difficult to make decent natural ice,” Asami said, citing his family records that show average temperatures in January in Chichibu have risen 3.5 degrees over the past 40 years.

Asami said he hopes his sense of crisis will be shared by environment ministers and senior officials from about 190 countries during a two-day U.N. climate meeting starting Thursday in Poland so they can expedite work to craft a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol.

Records by Asami’s father from 1960 to 1991 show that there were many days in winter when temperatures hit minus 12 to minus 15 at 6 a.m., allowing him to “harvest” ice in December and then once again in January every year.

But since Asami took over the business in 1992, he has seen only three days or so when local temperatures fell below minus 10, making it difficult for him to harvest ice twice a season.

The declining quantity of ice has forced Asami to halt the shipment of natural ice to bars, hotels and department stores in Tokyo. Today, he only serves shaved ice at his parlor from March through November.

Natural ice forms only when it becomes very cold. Snow, meanwhile, damages the taste of the ice. With its favorable climate, the Chichibu area has long been an ideal place for making ice, in which workers form ice in ponds after drawing water from mountain streams.

“I’m very worried about the future of natural ice-making if the climate continues to change at the current pace,” Asami said.

Reinforcing his fear of global warming, the Environment Ministry warned in a recent report that beech forests in Japan would shrink 30 percent if the average temperature rises 1.5 from current levels, and 50 percent if it rises 2.5.

Japan could suffer damage worth ¥1 trillion a year from heavy rainfall caused by global warming, and the country would sustain damage worth up to ¥5 trillion if all reclaimed land were submerged by rising sea levels, according to the report, which was based on studies by about 45 researchers.

Asami believes the leadership of the United States — the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter along with China — is vital if the world is to address global warming.

Asami said he wants President-elect Barack Obama to implement his pledge after taking office in January to “engage vigorously” in U.N. climate talks and to cut U.S. emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, before reducing them a further 80 percent by 2050, a turnaround from President George W. Bush’s climate policy that included the rejection of the Kyoto pact.

Also, Asami suggested that the U.S., in partnership with other developed countries, not only reduce its own emissions but provide China, India and other emerging countries with increased funds and technology to help them curb emissions without sacrificing economic growth, one of the key issues to be included in a framework to succeed the Kyoto accord, which expires in 2012.

“You cannot tell developing countries not to grow,” he said. “I think such ‘green’ cooperation would make much more sense than spending billions of dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

U.N.-led negotiations involving about 190 countries for a post-2012 framework are scheduled to conclude at a key Copenhagen meeting in December 2009, with policymakers and experts calling for the inclusion of such non-Kyoto parties as the U.S., China and India to make it effective.