Rising costs of climate change

The international community has as little as 15 years to limit greenhouse gas emissions and invest in clean energy technologies before climate change will become too serious a problem for current technology to tackle or will be extremely costly, states a United Nations draft report that was recently leaked in an apparent effort to influence policymakers. Japan and other developed and emerging economies must take the report’s conclusions seriously and strive to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The draft report by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that although in recent years emissions have been falling in some of the wealthy industrialized nations due in part to a rise in the use of renewable energies and cleaner fuels. For instance, U.S. emissions in 2013 were about 10 percent lower than their 2005 level thanks to an increase in the use of cleaner burning natural gas instead of coal. But this progress has been overwhelmed by rapid growth in the global use of fossil fuels over the past decade, especially in rapidly growing economies such as China. And lower emissions levels in wealthier countries also reflect in part the fact that many of the goods they consume are now manufactured in rising economies.

Stating that carbon-dioxide emissions grew by 2.2 percent a year on average from 2000 to 2010 — nearly double the 1.3 percent rate of growth from 1970 to 2000 — the IPCC identifies the two main forces fueling this phenomenon: a steady rise in the world’s population and a sharp increase in economic growth. The burning of coal and oil were responsible for the majority of emissions.

A number of energy-rich countries sell gasoline and other fossil fuels to their citizens at a discount. The draft report recommends that such fossil fuel subsidies, which totaled $544 billion in 2012 according to the International Energy Agency, be cut. “Reduction of subsidies to fossil fuels can achieve significant emissions reduction at negative social cost,” it states.

The IPCC characterizes the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 treaty that obliges industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as having “not been as successful as intended,” both because certain major economic powers — most notably the United States, currently the world’s number two polluter — didn’t ratify it, and because it exempted developing countries, including China — now the world’s top polluter — from binding targets.

Although efforts are being made to negotiate a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, the outlook isn’t bright as many countries, including Japan, are reluctant to take steps that could slow economic growth as they strive to recover from the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

The IPCC, however, argues that such a perspective is extremely shortsighted even when viewed solely from an economic perspective. If the international community does not do something within the next 10 to 15 years to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the cost of reducing them later would be far higher because existing technologies would be incapable of achieving the current goal of limiting global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Even if this goal is met, experts contend that vast economic and ecological damage would still result, but it would likely occur at a pace gradual enough to be managed. If high emissions continue to 2030, however, this goal will no longer be achievable and future generations may be forced to make far more costly and technologically daunting efforts to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as drawing carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it underground.

Unfortunately Japan ranks among the nations that could be doing far more to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The Abe administration came under a hail of criticism last November when it confirmed at the U.N. climate change conference in Warsaw that it would not adhere to the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, 2013-2020, and would instead revise its 2020 emission reduction target to 3.8 percent from 2005 levels.

This was a steep drop from the 25 percent reduction target from 1990 levels set in 2009 by the prior Democratic Party of Japan administration, and actually amounts to a 3 percent increase in pollution from the Kyoto Protocol’s base year of 1990.

While the Abe administration may consider this move to be in the nation’s best economic interest, it is myopic and ultimately could hamper Japan’s international competitiveness in the development of new renewable energy technologies.

Japan now depends on fossil-fuel imports for most of its energy needs, which is both increasing its greenhouse gas emissions and widening its trade deficit. And the Fukushima nuclear disaster has tragically demonstrated that nuclear power — once believed to be the key to Japan’s quest for energy independence and reduced emissions — is not a rational option for this quake-prone country.

The Abe administration should shed its backward-looking energy policy and, instead, pursue a long-term energy strategy based on conservation and technological innovation — two areas in which Japan excels.

Japanese cities once ranked among the world’s most polluted as the nation rose from the ashes of World War II to become a leading economy, but thanks to a concerted legislative effort by the government beginning in the 1970s and heavy investment in pollution-control and energy-conservation technologies, Japan’s cities now rank among the world’s cleanest.

The Abe administration should adopt a similar approach toward renewable green energies, creating policies that stimulate heavy investment in technologies to harness solar, geothermal, wind and wave power — resources that Japan has in abundance. Not only would such an effort allow Japan to reduce its emissions of greenhouse-house gases and end its deadly duet with nuclear energy, it would also create lucrative new export markets for the Japanese companies that develop these technologies.