Editorials

Don't repeat the lost decade of climate action

Climate data shows that we’re on a steady path of global warming — the 2010s was the hottest ever on record. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called the past 10 years the “lost decade of climate action” during which there was no real change in the pathway of emissions of greenhouse gases across the globe. Indeed, the world cannot afford to lose another decade in the fight to avert the catastrophic effects of climate change. As the world’s fifth-largest emitter, Japan must step up to the plate and promptly revamp its efforts to combat global warming.

Last year, the average temperature on Earth was the second-highest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. What’s more, the average global temperature for the 2010-2019 period was the highest on record, continuing the upward trend that began in the 1980s. The 2019 average marked an increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, and the WMO warns that the temperature rise would reach 3 to 5 degrees by the end of the century — far above the Paris Agreement goal of keeping it within 2 degrees and as close as possible to 1.5 — if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue at the current pace.

The 2019 average temperature in Japan was the highest since the government began taking relevant statistics in 1898, topping the benchmark 30-year average to 2010 by 0.92 degrees. The series of typhoons that hit Japan since last summer maintained their strength as they made landfall due to the higher water temperatures in the sea around Japan, causing downpours and flooding that defied conventional expectations. Extreme weather as manifested in heat waves, wildfires and rising sea levels is expected to be more frequent and damaging in coming decades. The impact of climate change is no longer a threat in the distant future.

According to the UNEP, the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases increased by 1.6 percent a year on average in the decade from 2008 to 2017 to reach record levels. The current level of emissions is almost exactly at the level projected a decade earlier under “the business as usual” scenario assuming that no new climate policies are put into place, which means that the effects of climate action taken so far have been too small to offset the impact of factors that drive emission increases such as economic and population growth, the UNEP says.

This year marks the beginning of the action phase of the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change. It is widely known that voluntary plans submitted so far by the accord’s signatories to cut their emissions, if implemented to the full, are far from sufficient to curb the warming of the globe and avert its devastating effects — it is projected the temperature rise will top 3 degrees by the end of the century. That’s why each country in the accord is required to update its plans every five years. The UNEP estimates that nations will have to triple the level of their emission reductions to get on track for limiting warming to below 2 degrees — and increase the cuts by fivefold to contain the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

However, the government has reportedly given up on upgrading Japan’s emissions reduction target this year. The government relies on nuclear power plants — which do not emit carbon dioxide in power generation — to reduce the nation’s emissions, but the restart of reactors idled in the wake of the 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holding’s Fukushima No. 1 plant remains slow.

While the 2030 energy mix under the government’s Basic Energy Plan is based on nuclear power accounting for 20 to 22 percent of the nation’s electricity supply, the share of nuclear plants in power output remains a mere 3 percent. Along with the sharply increased cost of safety investments under post-Fukushima regulations, legal risks — as illustrated by a recent court decision ordering Shikoku Electric Power Co. to suspend operation of the No. 3 reactor at its Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture — cloud the prospects of the nuclear power business in this country.

As the introduction of renewable energies such as solar and wind power also remain far behind the global trend, Japan has turned more to fossil fuel-based power sources, in particular coal, whose fuel cost is cheaper, even though it emits more carbon dioxide than other sources. Japan currently relies on coal-fired power plants for more than 30 percent of its power supply. As it is, even the government’s current unambitious target under the Paris Agreement to reduce Japan’s emissions in 2030 by 26 percent from 2013 levels is deemed to be in doubt.

Noting that containing the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial levels will be impossible if all coal-fired power plants under construction are put into operation, the UNEP calls for halting the construction of new plants and phasing out existing plants. In Japan, there are roughly 100 coal-fired power plants in operation and construction of nearly 20 new plants is planned. To beef up its contribution to the global fight against climate change, Japan needs to paint a new picture of its energy landscape.

The government reportedly plans to compile a strategy for establishing innovative technologies by 2050 to eliminate the net emission of greenhouse gases — such as highly efficient solar power generation, the use of hydrogen as an energy source and the recycling of carbon dioxide as resources — with a view to investing ¥30 trillion over 10 years and creating international research hubs. Securing those innovations will be crucial to achieving a zero-carbon future. However, that should not be an excuse for delaying the action that must be taken now.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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