Commentary / Japan

Abe flubs great opportunity to be a green global leader

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Sadly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just flubbed a wonderful opportunity to show his green credentials for the benefit of Japan and the world. Asked about the Paris agreement on climate change, he replied with a boilerplate statement that Japan will “keep playing a leading role in the international community” in the battle against global warming. But he also promised that Japan won’t sacrifice growth in fighting against climate change.

The truth is that Japan’s role in reaching the Paris agreement was distinctly underwhelming; commitments it has made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — by 26 percent below 2013 levels by 2030 — are less than it promised under the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Worst of all, there is no sign that Tokyo plans to take the lead in making sure the Paris deal actually works.

World leaders joined hands jubilantly and sang their own praises over the weekend, having finally reached an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit the Earth’s temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. They also agreed to work together to restrain the rise to 1.5 degrees.

The media hyped words like “historic” and “game changer” to describe the agreement. Thousands of supporters in Paris did a Mexican victory wave to celebrate the end of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, or so they claimed. U.S. President Barack Obama claimed that Paris is a “turning point for the world” and the “best chance” to save the planet, even as Republicans expressed their opposition to the new deal.

It’s time for a reality check. The Paris deal will still see greenhouse gas emissions climbing to a peak in 2030, even if every country keeps its promises. At best, global temperatures will rise to 2.7 to 3 degrees above preindustrial levels, far above the 2 degrees that scientists also say is the safety limit.

The Paris deal is not legally enforceable. It is an agreement, not a treaty, and that is to prevent Republicans in the United States from scuppering it from the start. It relies on the honor and honesty of each country to keep its promises to curb gas emissions.

Crucially, it omits to answer who will pay the $100 billion plus a year to help poorer countries, both to assist heavy polluters to clean up their environment and to mitigate damage in the most vulnerable low-lying countries.

Equally worrying, Paris is a defensive agreement that does not achieve what it sets out to do. What is needed is a multifocused effort to find new clean sources of energy that will allow up and coming countries to fulfill their dreams of pulling their people from poverty without making the Earth uninhabitable.

The best that can be said is that a new green baby has been born. Forget the talk of a healthy toddler taking its first steps. This a newborn infant awkwardly delivered after 20 years of labor and constant argument.

If this were a real baby, health and safety officials would snatch it from parents like heavily polluting China and India, the U.S., which denies the problem, and Japan, which encourages polluters to believe in the myth of “clean” greenhouse gas emissions by buying its technology.

Let’s remember the context of Paris. Scientists who have been warning of the danger of climate change for years expressed disappointment. James Hansen, the former NASA scientist considered the father of the climate change movement, called the Paris talks “a fraud, a fake. … It’s just bulls—- for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words.”

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, an advocacy group calling for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere levels to be reduced to 350 parts per million, from the current 400, believes that “we are currently on track for between 4C and 5C” temperature rises above preindustrial levels, not the 2-degree target of Paris, less still the 1.5-degree aspiration. Already, with the current 1-degree rise, the Earth’s weather patterns are becoming unpredictable and hazardous.

If governments want to get serious, he correctly says, they need to show more urgency and declare some areas off-limits, such as the Arctic, pre-salt formations off Brazil, oil off North America. We should add the disputed waters of the South China Sea to that list.

The first achievement of Paris is that a deal was done. To get 196 different countries to agree together, from big polluters, rich and poor, to small island states that are the poorest victims of pollution, may count as the finest hour of French President Francois Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, said Paris was a first step: “Today, the human race has joined in a common cause. The Paris agreement is only one step on a long road. … The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

What is critical now — and why I lament Abe’s failure to become actively involved — is leadership, someone who will guide the first steps of the new green baby, nurture and cherish it. As the host of the Kyoto meeting, a byword for the efforts to curb humans’ plunder and despoliation, Japan should be actively involved in the battle to save the Earth.

Who else can do it? Obama is clearly a lame duck at whom Republican climate deniers happily take potshots. Maybe with a Democratic successor a green Abe could find a partner.

Japan is sufficiently respected worldwide in both the developed and developing worlds to play a constructive role as a promoter of a green Earth. The obvious twin problems for Abe and Japan is that they have to come from under the shadow of the U.S., and would have to form a new relationship with the world’s biggest polluter, China.

There is a bigger obstacle, though — Abe and Japan would have to cast off their nationalistic spectacles and see Japan as part of the whole Earth, sharing its common joys and sorrows.

Smog alerts for Beijing throughout the two weeks of the Paris meeting may bring home to China just how much urgent work there is to do. Optimists say President Xi Jinping and his team are above all smart pragmatists who understand the science, technology and politics of the suffocating Earth. They are neither climate-change deniers nor evangelistic converts to a green economy.

China has immense financial clout but resisted contributing to funding to support the Paris deal. Could Japan persuade itself and China that rather than scrapping over specks of rock in the East China Sea for fossil fuel reserves that a green Earth does not need, they should be working together to save the planet?

Bill Gates and his friends, including Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and Jack Ma, have shown a way with the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, along with investors from a dozen countries. Abe should encourage Japanese companies to join the party. Investors in Gates’ coalition plan to raise seed funding, angel funding and Series A investments across five key areas: electricity generation and storage, transportation, industrial uses, agriculture and energy efficiency. “The renewable technologies we have today, like wind and solar, have made a lot of progress and could be one path to a zero-carbon energy future,” Gates said in a statement. “But given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths, and that means we also need to invent new approaches.”

An important feature of Paris is the built-in review every five years, starting with a “facilitative dialogue” in 2017, to update and assess promises in the light of experience and the real world. If Paris is to mean anything, someone has to take charge to encourage everyone to do better, to chide and shame the laggards and promote the best ideas, to keep powerful Big Oil at bay and to see that green energy takes root.

Who? Is Abe big enough and farsighted enough? It is hard to see another leader with stature and such a big stake in a green Earth.

Kevin Rafferty is a journalist and commentator based in Osaka.