OSAKA – In the midst of serious news about North Korean missiles and constitutional revision, as well as a steady diet of BLT (bright, light and trite) stories and corporate propaganda that clog our intellectual arteries, it’s easy to lose track of what developments are critical to life itself.
No, it’s not the statements of Kim Jong Un or the tweets of U.S. President Donald Trump. Rather, as a seminar in Kyoto last week reminded everyone, it’s global climate change due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions and how human populations deal with it.
The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol, that much-praised, much-maligned document that forced developed nations (but not China or India) to cut their greenhouse gases by a fixed amount. Whatever arguments there are (and there are plenty) about whether the Kyoto Protocol did any good, it forced people to think seriously about environmental issues and act. Including those in the home of the Kyoto Protocol itself.
Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa told attendees the city had been doing well in reducing its greenhouse emissions until the 2011 Tohoku quake, which forced Japan’s nuclear power stations offline and the restart of thermal plants. By 2015, emissions were 3.2 percent below 1990 levels, although Kyoto still held onto its goal of a 25 percent cut in emissions by 2020, compared to 1990.
Pro-nuclear advocates, naturally, argue that existing and yet-to-be-built nuclear power plants are needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in cities like Kyoto. Their logic looks convincing on PowerPoint. The reality is that Japan’s regional governments are pursuing environmental goals that rely little, or not at all, on that power source. Last week’s decision by the Hiroshima High Court barring the restart of a nuclear reactor due to volcano risks is likely to strengthen their belief nuclear is the past not the future, which makes the government’s stated nuclear power share nationally of 20-22 percent by 2030 look too high.
Local green measures include promoting renewable energy sources, reducing electricity consumption, and policies to increase efficient energy use. In Kyoto, Kadokawa noted, total energy consumption declined 26 percent over the past two decades partially due to such efforts.
Of course, it wasn’t all good news. While the percentage of people in Kyoto using cars since 2000 had declined from 28 percent to about 22 percent as of 2016, the percentage of those using trains and buses jumped from 22 percent to nearly 28 percent. That’s led to some of the worst traffic jams in the country, although residents are no doubt grateful that taxis, cars and buses idling at red lights belch far less smoke into the air than two decades ago.
Other regional governments throughout Japan have also been pursuing ambitious environmental plans designed to reduce local emissions. The Environment Ministry’s most recent statistics show some prefectures appear to be doing better than others.
In 2014, reported emissions of carbon dioxide and five greenhouse gases from major enterprises amounted to over 582 million tons for all 47 prefectures. Yet just nine prefectures accounted for half of that, and Chiba Prefecture alone emitted 9.3 percent of the total. Nara Prefecture, with just 0.1 percent, was the “greenest,” with an emissions level less than even prefectures with a clean and green image such as Hokkaido (3.9 percent), Mie (2.6 percent) and Nagano (0.5 percent).
National action remains critical to mitigate the impacts of climate change. But cities worldwide, including in the U.S., have been far ahead of their central governments in terms of a green policies despite, or perhaps because of, the political clout of the fossil fuel and nuclear power lobbies in the halls of central governments. Getting local governments to go green may yet be the Kyoto Protocol’s enduring historical legacy.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.