Commentary / Japan

Japan's high stakes in climate action

by Vinod Thomas

Contributing Writer

This year gave a preview of the damage in both rich and poor countries from storms and heat waves aggravated by runaway global warming. The crucial question for 2019 and beyond is whether carbon emissions will be reined in to avert scientific projections of even more colossal damage. Just as in a financial crisis, the answer is that they will be sooner or later, but that the choice will be between a hard landing of death and destruction and a soft landing rested on timely climate action.

Japan in 2018 — as was the case with China and India in recent years — illustrates the two prongs of the climate crisis, floods and storms on the one side, and heat waves and drought conditions on the other. Record rains brought floods and landslides to western Japan in early July. Typhoon Jebi followed, wreaking havoc on the Kansai region, exposing the vulnerability of Kansai International Airport, and raising alarm about other airports that are built on artificial islands or coastal landfill, like Chubu Central International Airport in Aichi Prefecture and Tokyo’s Haneda airport.

Meanwhile, record-breaking heat claimed dozens of lives: temperatures hit 41.1 degrees in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture — the hottest reading ever in Japan. Record heat threw up a conundrum. Commendable initiatives like the Cool Biz campaign push thermostats higher to reduce energy use.

Many public spaces do not have air conditioning. According to a survey, 42 percent of public schools have air conditioning, and most apartment buildings do not have central climate controls. But warming, including nighttime temperature, intensifies strain, especially on the elderly and young.

Man-made greenhouse gases (of which carbon dioxide is the biggest component) make the Earth’s lower atmosphere warmer, contributing to more extreme heat waves and forest fires. Warmer air holds more water or moisture, which results in more intense rainfall. It also gives more energy for storms. Even if not at the level of individual events, climate scientists attribute the rising trends in flooding and heavy rains to climate change.

They predict that, in the absence of a shift to a low carbon economy worldwide, Japan’s average temperature could rise more than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. The rise will affect rice, among other crops. Hotter, longer summers, excessive rainfall in some areas and droughts in others that damage fruit and vegetable crops, and warmer coastal waters that render them unsuitable for certain fish species could mean a sharp decline in agricultural products. Japan could be seeing the emergence of tropical species like varieties of ants and mosquitoes.

Adaptation to a changing climate is one part of the agenda. Japan is at the leading edge of disaster preparedness. Japan’s Meteorological Agency is strengthening its Emergency Warning System to map the intensity of weather-related hazards, particularly for people with disabilities and other special needs, and making evacuations even more of an imperative.

The government’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency runs J-Alert, a satellite-based system that enables local authorities to transmit warning messages directly to local media and citizens.

One system devised to bolster Tokyo’s flood defenses is the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, the world’s largest underground flood water diversion system. It took billions of dollars to compete the work, but its benefits are even bigger. Linked by tunnels that divert water away from the region’s most vulnerable floodplains, the underground anti-flood system is an example of the defenses that global cities are readying as they face extreme weather prompted by climate change.

But adaptation will not suffice unless mitigation takes central stage, among the world’s leading emitters, including Japan in fifth place. Of the 20 top global firms with patents related to renewable energy, 12 are Japanese. Japan has the highest number of patents in the world in renewable energy, particularly solar technology.

Yet Japan is behind the curve in commercialization of such technologies. The cost of solar energy in Japan still hovers at around ¥24 per kilowatt-hours, while that in Germany is as low as ¥9 per kWh. Also renewable energy buy-out by the grid has still to cope with mismatches between demand and supply.

Together with a quicker switch to renewable energy, there needs to be a phasing out of carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy worldwide. But the share of coal in Japan’s electric power of about one third could actually rise if nuclear reintroduction is not successful and renewables (including hydroelectric) do not expand more quickly from the current 15 percent. This scenario needs to be revised.

Japan’s stakes in a low carbon world economy is among the highest as it is on the front line of climate disasters and also a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Along with steps in adaptation and mitigation, Japan’s role is vital for being a voice and advocate for decarbonizing the world economy.

Vinod Thomas is a visiting professor at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila, and the author of “Climate Change and Natural Disasters” (Routledge, 2018). Vndthomas91@yahoo.com

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