Editorials

Stage set for the fight against climate change

The common rules to govern the efforts by nations to fight global warming, adopted at a key United Nations conference on climate change in Poland over the weekend, only set the stage for implementing the 2015 Paris agreement to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide. Whether the accord’s goal of taming the man-made rises in temperatures and averting the catastrophic consequences of climate change can be achieved will depend on if participating countries, including Japan, can substantially upgrade and carry out their plans to cut emissions.

That the participants in the 24th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change could agree on a set of universal and transparent rules to verify how the countries are cutting emissions according to their commitments — despite reported divisions between rich industrialized nations and developing countries — in time for the year-end deadline so they can put the Paris accord in force in 2020 as planned is a sign of progress. But that was the minimum that was needed to be achieved at the conference to sustain the credibility of the agreement and move global efforts to combat climate change forward.

It has been made clear that countries need to do much more than they have so far pledged to achieve the agreement’s goal of keeping rises in global temperatures within 2 degrees — and preferably closer to 1.5 degrees — from pre-industrial levels. Earlier this month an international research team reported that global carbon dioxide emissions, after being nearly flat for three years through 2016, likely picked up again in 2017 and this year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in October that temperature rises could hit 1.5 degrees as early as in 2030, raising sea levels and making damage from extreme weather more severe. These warnings — plus the spate of extreme weather that wreaked havoc in many countries this year — may have prompted the COP24 participants to reach an agreement by extending the conference two days.

Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Paris agreement was a landmark deal that brought together the rich, advanced countries and developing economies in the efforts to cut emissions and curb global warming. Each signatory makes its own plans to cut its emissions, however, and the plans so far submitted by participants fall far short of what’s needed to slow climate change. A report released last month by the U.N. Environmental Program said that under those plans, global temperatures will rise by around 3 degrees by the end of the century — and will keep going up.

The Paris agreement obliges signatory countries to regularly upgrade their plans for reducing emissions. However, momentum among the major emitters to substantially improve their plans is weak. China and the United States, the world’s largest and second-largest emitters respectively, account for roughly 40 percent of global emissions. But the increase in emissions worldwide this year and last year is partly attributed to greater coal consumption in China. American efforts to cut emissions hang in the air after President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement.

Europe has long led international efforts to combat climate change. Germany, for example, has established a plan to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent from the 1990 levels by 2020, but it seems unlikely the goal will be achieved at the current pace. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long been long involved in international efforts to combat global warming, but her clout has significantly waned following the losses of her ruling party in local elections this past October. France contributed to putting together the Paris agreement as chair of the COP21 conference that adopted the deal three years ago. But following weeks of violent protests the government of President Emmanuel Macron has been forced to postpone a fuel tax hike that was meant to help combat global warming.

Japan, the world’s fifth-largest emitter, often comes under fire for promoting coal-fired thermal power generation, which produces more carbon dioxide than other energy sources, while lagging far behind other major industrial powers in expanding the use of renewable energy sources. Japan and Italy are the only Group of Seven countries that have yet to compile a long-term strategy for fighting climate change — which the Paris agreement requires signatories to do by 2020. The government reportedly plans to devise such a strategy by the Group of 20 summit that it will host in Osaka next June. Japan needs to put together a meaningful strategy that contributes to the transition to a post-carbon society in line with the Paris agreement’s goal of effectively eliminating emissions of global-warming gases on a net basis.