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The global environment is deteriorating. I saw this firsthand on my trip to China several years ago. The plane arrived a few hours behind schedule because of blowing dust. As I disembarked, I noticed the jetliner was covered with black particles of “yellow sand.”

Yellow sand, whipped up by sandstorms in China’s arid regions, flies eastward over the continent and reaches Japan in the early spring. This year sand-carrying clouds were observed for a record number of days over many parts of the country, from Kyushu to Hokkaido.

Yellow sand is said to be caused by desertification due to development in China’s inland areas. However, global warming lies at the root of the problem.

Global warming is affecting trees in Russia, which accounts for one-fifth of the world’s forests. The melting of frozen soil and the drying of undergrowth are said to be responsible for the large fires that raged recently in eastern Siberia. Forest fires add to global warming, which in turn makes forests more susceptible to fire.

These are but a few examples. The big picture is that the global environment and ecology are being destroyed at a dangerous pace.

In this regard, Japan’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is a welcome step toward the treaty’s implementation. It is regrettable, however, that the government sidestepped fundamental issues at recent international meetings on climate change (COP6-7) and focused instead on point-scoring technical schemes, such as forest absorption of carbon dioxide and trading of emission credits.

As the host of the 1997 Kyoto conference (COP3), Japan should have taken the lead role in ironing out differences among the United States, European Union and developing countries. The U.S., the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has pulled out of the Kyoto treaty.

The basic question for Japan is how it should deal with the problem of global warming. Under the Protocol, the nation is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Achieving that goal requires much more than alterations of existing systems and voluntary efforts.

In my view, the most effective and realistic way of coping with global warming is to introduce an environmental tax. I know that such a tax is strongly opposed by private industry. At the time of the COP6 meeting, held in 2000 and again in 2001, Japanese industry refused to assume any further burden, saying it had already attained the highest level of energy efficiency in the world. Business lobbies expressed concern that a tax would crimp growth, increase prices and undercut Japan’s competitiveness.

We should put a positive spin on the environmental tax. For example, people will have more money to spend if income taxes are cut by the same amount that will accrue from the new tax. Also, gross domestic output — total output of goods and services — will increase if the revenue from the new tax is spent on antiwarming measures.

That’s not all. This ecology tax will increase replacement demand for more energy-efficient products. The result will be less energy consumption. Developing energy-saving products will help boost Japan’s international competitiveness.

A carbon tax — another name for the environmental tax — was introduced in Finland in 1990. In subsequent years, other countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Germany and Britain, followed suit. In Sweden, carbon dioxide emissions reportedly dropped by an average 19 percent from 1987 to 1994, with the tax contributing to 60 percent of the reduction.

Member states of the European Union, while cutting labor taxes to cope with high unemployment and a shrinking workforce due to the increasing average age of the population, are moving to tax activities that put a burden on the environment. The European Commission estimates that half a million jobs will be created if 180 billion Euros are invested in renewable energy projects through 2020.

It is true that a variety of questions must be addressed before the environmental tax can be introduced in Japan. For example, under what standards should it be levied? At what stages of activity should it be imposed? In what cases should it be reduced or exempted? How should it tie in to the existing energy tax system? How should the revenue be used?

The carbon tax is likely to meet considerable opposition from the general public as well. But the people — ultimately the largest polluter — need to bear the cost of preventing warming. Creating the kind of tax that makes them willing to pay that cost is, therefore, the most realistic method conceivable under the present circumstances.

It is rash to conclude that antiwarming measures will necessarily restrict economic growth. These measures, it must be remembered, will also spur technological innovations and create new markets. Among the new products likely to emerge are energy-saving home appliances and high-efficiency solar panels. Meanwhile, international trading in emission credits — a market that has opened in Britain on a trial basis — is expected to expand in scale.

A nation’s economic competitiveness will be significantly affected by the ways in which it combats global warming. So these efforts should be seen not as a damper on economic expansion but as a catalyst for a new type of economic growth. Japan, it should be noted, has overcome a number of major economic crises since the end of World War II.

The Environment Basic Law, which took effect in 1993 while I was prime minister, says the government will take “necessary and appropriate economic measures” for those engaged in activities that impose a burden on the environment. Thus the issue of environmental tax has been discussed one way or the other for nearly a decade.

Industrial nations are set to map out plans to achieve their emission targets. To stay ahead in the race, Japan should build without delay a market-oriented mechanism for preventing global warming.

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