The 17th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17) held in Durban, South Africa, since Nov. 28 agreed Sunday to start work in 2012 to write a comprehensive treaty that will require both developed and developing countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. According to a road map called the Durban platform, adopted at COP17, the terms for the treaty will be agreed on by 2015 and the treaty will go into effect beginning in 2020.

Although COP17 produced a concrete result, regrettably Japan did not play a visible role in giving birth to it. This is due to its decision to refuse to accept a new greenhouse gas reduction obligation if the Kyoto Protocol, the current emission agreement, is extended. In 1997 Japan played an important role as chair at a Kyoto meeting to create the protocol. But Japan’s behavior in COP17 has lowered its say and position in international negotiations on climate change. Japan needs to make efforts to play a positive role in such negotiations of the future.

COP17, which crafted the agreement after 48 hours of extra work from the originally scheduled Dec. 9 end to the conference, strikes a contrast with COP15 held in Copenhagen in 2009, when participating countries failed to agree on a new emission reduction treaty. The agreement in Durban is a modest but meaningful success considering that China and the United States, respectively the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 emitters, together responsible for some 40 percent of the global emissions, and emerging economies such as India and Brazil will eventually come to bear obligations to reduce their emissions once the new treaty becomes effective.

China is a party to the Kyoto Protocol but has no emission cut obligation because it is classified as a developing country. The U.S. is not even a party to the protocol.

The participating countries in COP17 also agreed to create a fund called the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries cope with climate change and develop clean energy sources. As much as $100 billion a year will begin being delivered by 2020 through public and private funding.

But even with the adoption of the Durban platform, it is clear that the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must do more to prevent the world from reaching a point where climate change becomes irreversible — a great concern for the poorest and small island countries — because it will be a long time before the new treaty will be enforced.

In order to avoid serious damage from climate change such as a rising sea level, the increase in the average global temperature since the Industrial Revolution must be held to 2 degrees Celsius or less. This is an internationally accepted goal.

The United Nations Environment Program says that to achieve the goal, global emissions must by reduced by 44 billion tons in terms of carbon dioxide in 2020. But even if the current emission cut measures are successfully carried out, the reduced amount in 2020 will be 6 billion to 11 billion tons short of the called-for amount. The UNFCCC parties must realize that their current emission cut efforts are far from adequate.

The European Union played an important role in bringing about the Durban platform. It sought to create a road map that will eventually lead to creation of a treaty under which major emitting countries, both developed and developing, that currently have no international obligations to cut emissions — such as the U.S., China and India — along with other countries will bear the duty of cutting their emissions as well as of extending the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Under the protocol, for example, Japan and the EU have to cut their emissions by 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively, during the commitment period of 2008 to 2012 from 1990 levels. Although COP17 decided to extend the Kyoto Protocol, the new commitment period and the new reduction targets will be decided on next year in a conference in Qatar.

Japan along with Russia and Canada decided to refuse to accept new emission cut obligations under the extended Kyoto Protocol, saying that the two major emitting countries — China and the U.S. — are not part of the current reduction efforts. Apparently behind Japan’s decision was pressure from industrial lobbies, which prefer voluntary measures to reduce gas emissions.

Japan’s decision is highly regrettable as it came at a time when Japan needs to turn itself into a low-carbon society through development and wide utilization of renewable energy sources in the wake of the severe accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Japan’s withdrawal from an international obligation to reduce emissions is likely to put a brake on its domestic efforts to fight global warming.

A binding emission reduction target is necessary to help promote investment in the development of renewable energy sources and low-emission production processes. The disappearance of such a target will lead to stagnation of business aimed at developing technologies to realize a low-carbon society.

The government should not forget its international promise of cutting emissions by 25 percent by 2020 from the 1990 level. It should quickly work out a reduction target for 2013 and afterwards as well as necessary measures to achieve it.

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