For almost three decades, the U.N. has worked to bring as many countries together as possible on a regular basis for the global climate change summits known as COP, short for Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. These events have served to focus the world’s attention on climate change more and more each year, increasingly reminding all concerned of the urgent need to take the issue as seriously as possible.
This year, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, dubbed COP26, is being held through Nov. 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. Originally scheduled to take place in 2020, but postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 is of particular significance. At COP21 in 2015, the world’s participants reached the Paris Agreement, which has the goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees C (1.5 degrees, ideally). Moreover, the countries involved agreed to come back every five years with an updated plan enshrining even greater ambitions, to the utmost extent possible. COP26, therefore, represents a chance to aim even higher, as the causes and effects of climate change weigh more heavily on our collective future than ever before.
A dynamic 2021 in Japan
Despite the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic, the Japanese government has not rested on the previous efforts that embody its commitment to environmental improvement. In April 2021, for example, then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga explicitly stated Japan’s commitment to lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 46% from fiscal 2013 levels by fiscal 2030.
In addition, new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced plans to make COP26 his first official overseas trip as prime minister. The leaders meeting is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.
Another event of note this year was the Special Meeting of ASEAN Ministers on Energy and the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan, which was held online on June 21. At the time, then-METI chief Hiroshi Kajiyama proposed the Asia Energy Transition Initiative, which provides support for ASEAN countries in many ways, helping them to achieve a transition to more environmentally sound ways of life without sacrificing economic growth. It is characterized by everything from energy-change road maps based on the actual needs and conditions of each country to financial support of $10 billion for specific projects, as well as plans for knowledge-sharing and improving business environments.
The government has also spent much of the year working on a revision of Japan’s Basic Energy Plan. Of note, Japan aims to have renewables account for 36% to 38% of total power generation capacity in fiscal 2030, nearly twice as much as the 18% recorded in fiscal 2019.
One recent event of deep significance for Japan, and emblematic of its attempts to combat climate change, was Tokyo Beyond Zero Week 2021, a combined set of eight international conferences on energy and the environment held from Oct. 4 to 8. Reflecting Suga’s October 2020 announcement of the goal of “reaching a carbon-neutral, decarbonized society by 2050,” Tokyo Beyond Zero Week represented concrete steps in this direction.
Held both online and in-person in Tokyo, the eight conferences that made up TBZW brought together participants from Japan and the rest of the world to take on a kaleidoscope of vital issues. While an exhaustive list of all that was discussed is beyond the scope of this piece, a glance at some areas shows the wide array of topics that were addressed.
To ensure both growth and carbon neutrality, a need to examine the specific conditions in each nation and economy was stressed. Japan’s progress with the key technology of carbon recycling was disseminated with the aim of further strengthening international cooperation and making advances in related technology. Another issue of note was how hydrogen can be utilized on a global scale, and ideas for building hydrogen-based societies around the globe were discussed. The long-term outlook for liquefied natural gas (LNG) and how to increase market transparency for this fuel were also brought up, as this energy source has been a promoter of stability and sustainable growth both in Japan and around the world. Ammonia was another zero-emission fuel that received attention, with an eye to international collaboration and efforts to expand the recognition and use of this energy source.
In addition to energy sources and technology, the role of financial mechanisms was an important matter of note during TBZW, and one that will only grow in significance in the years to come. The final conference of this eventful week brought together the leaders of advanced research and development institutes from the G20 nations. Cross-border collaboration among R&D bodies was encouraged to bring about further innovations in numerous fields.
A global effort
In 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to change the ecological policies of his predecessor Donald Trump, who had pulled America out of the Paris Agreement. Biden was quick to re-ratify the agreement, and in his first address to the United Nations, the new president also stated that America would be doubling its climate finance pledge by 2024, increasing funding for developing nations to $11.4 billion by that year.
In April, Biden also promised that the U.S. would cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2030. Much of Biden’s commitment to the environment will hinge on the giant $3.5 trillion federal overhaul pushed by his Democratic Party, but it is facing possible cuts and controversies at home.
During a Russian Energy Week conference last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that his country would aim to become carbon neutral by 2060. The announcement followed a June order by Putin to develop a carbon strategy, and the signing of a climate law in July that represented a move toward systems for green projects and carbon trading. Although Russia ratified the Paris Agreement, there has been little concrete action until recent developments there, as Russia remains the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Another possibility being considered in Russia is a pledge to cut net carbon dioxide emissions by 79% from 2019 to 2050. However, this idea remains fluid and may or may not become a firm commitment.
Earlier this year in China, the nation’s leading economic planning body was put in charge of the initiative to cut greenhouse gases. The nation’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is now the central body working on this issue, reversing a 2018 move that had put the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) in charge of greenhouse gas reduction.
The new NDRC plans to call for stepped-up vigilance on climate issues and also changes in the energy and metals sectors of the economy, which are responsible for large amounts of Chinese emissions. The MEE will still have a role to play as it works to keep factories in line by levying fines and implementing other methods. Dangerous pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, are policed by the MEE, as is air quality.
Like Russia, China also has a 2060 goal for carbon neutrality. Much of the plan will involve a de-emphasis on coal as an energy source, and moves to step up investment in new, cleaner technologies.
Whether or not COP26 achieves its goals will be up to the nations that are attending. Despite the daunting challenges that continue to make climate change outcomes far from certain, hopes and goodwill remain high. As can be seen above, many of the world’s major nations have been stepping up their efforts in recent years, giving cause for hope. Whatever the final outcome, the entire planet will be watching carefully as COP26 unfolds in the days ahead.