Feasible anti-emission goal

by Takamitsu Sawa

In July 2008 the Japanese government adopted a target for 2050 of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 60 to 80 percent from 2005 levels. At the same time, a special panel was created to deliberate midterm reduction goals (through 2020).

Views among panel members, however, have been so diversified that as of April, there were six separate proposals on how 2020 emission levels should compare against 1990 levels: (1) 4 percent increase, (2) 1 percent increase to 5 percent reduction, (3) 7 percent reduction, (4) 8 to 17 percent reduction, (5) 15 percent reduction, and (6) 25 percent reduction.

Virtually no objection has been expressed against a long-term target of halving global emissions by 2050. That’s because few, if any, of those now debating the issue will be alive 40 years from now.

By 2050, today’s newborns will be 40 years old, and those in their final year of university will be 62. Japan’s political and economic landscape in 2050 will be dominated by those who today are under 22. So, the most effective and least costly means of reducing harmful emissions is to elevate the consciousness of the younger generations.

Achieving the 2050 reduction goal requires “backcasting” of specific steps. That means if total global emissions are to be halved by then, the industrialized nations, including Japan, will have to reduce their emission levels by about 70 percent. If it is assumed that technologically feasible reduction rates will decrease from decade to decade, the emission level by 2020 will have to be 25 percent lower than in 1990. If, on the other hand, feasible reduction rates rise, then the 2020 emission level can be 15 percent lower. I believe the latter assumption is more realistic, which leads me to favor the 15 percent reduction proposal above.

In December last year, the 27 member nations of the European Union adopted a declaration to reduce their combined greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. This was followed up with a new and more ambitious proposal in January, calling for a 30-percent reduction by all of the industrialized countries.

President Barack Obama has so far been less aggressive, saying only that 2020 emissions within the United States will be reduced to 1990 levels. It should be noted, however, that his goal is more ambitious than the first three of the six proposals being debated in Japan — if it is taken into account that total emissions in the U.S., which broke away from the Kyoto Protocol to 2007, was 14.7 percent above 1990 levels.

Another factor that must not be overlooked is changes in population in Japan and the U.S. In recent years, the U.S. population has been exploding, and is expected to rise from 255.5 million in 1990 to 338.4 million in 2020. By contrast, Japan’s population is forecast to change little, rising from 123.6 million in 1990 to 124.1 million in 2020, according to statistics released by the Internal Affairs Ministry.

In the U.S. where the population is projected to rise by 33.4 percent, the goal is to reduce per capita emissions by 25 percent. By contrast, in Japan, with little change in population, some are favoring an emission increase of 4 percent.

With all other industrialized nations determined to make sacrifices in order to mitigate the climate change, the “reasonableness” favored by the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) as the basis for demanding less stringent reduction goals appears incompatible with what is regarded as “reasonable” by other countries. As Environment Minister Tetsuo Saito has said, Japan will be “laughed at” in December by participants at the “COP 15″ U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen if it proposes to let its emissions rise by 4 percent.

Even though there does not appear to be much hope for a major technological breakthrough in reducing greenhouse gases over the next 10 years, there are reasons to believe that reducing emissions by 15 percent from 1990 levels, or by 21.2 percent from 2006 levels, is possible.

First, if Japan’s population remains virtually unchanged, all that is required is to cut back on per capita emissions by 15 percent from the 1990 levels.

Second, if, as the EU member nations claim, the newly emerging economies agree to be responsible for a certain portion of emission reductions, investments in clean development mechanisms in those countries will take the form of joint implementation between developed and developing nations. That will enable the advanced countries to get credit under emissions trading arrangements. This would cover a large portion of the 15 percent reduction required of the industrialized countries.

Third, the next decade will see a growing number of people using solar and wind power generation, stationary fuel cells and electric cars, which in turn will become the driving force in developing the economy and creating employment opportunities. Furthermore, with advanced methods of producing bio-ethanol from cellulose, a sharp reduction in carbon dioxide can be expected in the transportation sector.

Fourth, there is still much room for energy conservation in buildings.

Fifth, between 2010 and 2020, the Japanese economy will grow not much more than 1.5 percent annually, with service and information industries playing a bigger role than in the past. This will make economic growth less dependent on energy consumption.

Sixth, the general public has become far more conscious of environmental problems than ever, and is willing to use less energy, conserve resources and reduce waste. Younger generations, in particular, are steadily changing their lifestyles, exemplified by less enthusiasm for owning automobiles.

I am convinced that it is possible to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent by 2020 from prevailing 1990 levels. Now that home electric appliances and passenger cars have saturated their respective markets, popularizing eco-friendly products is the only way to ensure economic growth.

Ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will not be an impediment to economic growth. On the contrary, the more stringent the medium-term targets for emission reductions are, the quicker will be the pace of popularizing eco-friendly products, which in turn will serve to shore up the economy by creating new jobs.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University’s Graduate School of Policy Science and an appointed professor at Kyoto University’s Institute of Economic Research.