In a year that saw Japan release 24,000 tons of wastewater (so far) from Fukushima No. 1 as the planet smashed heat records, it’s no wonder climate anxiety is on the rise. Mara Budgen joins us to break down the year in environment news, where we could see hope, and what we should be worried about.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna 00:09

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Shaun McKenna. It's a month of reflection and trying to get a sense of where we are compared to where we were at the start of 2023. So you got your Spotify wraps, which actually came out in November, I don't know, I like these kinds of looks back in December only. When they start in November, it's like when you see Christmas lights go up around Tokyo before Halloween. Anyway, we'll be wrapping something completely different on today's podcast, Mara Budgen, an environment journalist and editor of The Japan Times’ Opinion section, is joining me to go over the big environment stories of the year. So we may not see chillhop or fourth world music in our climate recap, but we hope that having a clearer understanding of these issues will say more to you about where we are as a planet in 2023.

Hey Mara

Mara Budgen 01:03

Hey, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 01:05

So you're very busy at this time of year. Thanks for joining us on the show.

Mara Budgen 01:08

No problem. And aren't we all busy anyway?

Shaun McKenna 1:10

We definitely are. So you know, we were having a conversation about the environment and climate change last week. And I kind of made the confession that as someone who follows the news, it sometimes feels like I'm being targeted with a firehose of information, not all of it sticks. Sometimes it's hard to follow up on certain topics to see if they worked out or were resolved. So, I'm hoping this podcast kind of helps me reassess my eco life and priorities. So let me start by asking this, what do you think was the biggest environment or climate related story in Japan this year?

Mara Budgen 01:47

This is interesting, you know, maybe as someone who doesn't follow environment stories so closely, what do you feel was the biggest environment story of the year

Shaun McKenna 01:57

Based on feelings or vibes? I guess I would go with the record-setting heat and the Fukushima water release.

CLIP 02:05

In Japan this morning, a nuclear plant destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami back in 2011, started releasing water that had been exposed to radiation into the Pacific Ocean...

Mara Budgen 02:15

Bingo, you're absolutely right.

Shaun McKenna 02:19

That's convenient, because our listeners may recall that you were on this podcast back in July to explain the wastewater release plan. So just a quick recap, this is the water used to cool nuclear debris at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, that's the one that had the meltdowns after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, this water was piling up and we were running out of space to keep it and the authorities came up with a plan to release it very slowly back into the ocean over the span of something like 30 or 40 years. The water isn't straight radioactive, it's been treated to remove as much of the radioactive substances as possible. So Mara, how's this plan been going?

Mara Budgen 02:56

I don't necessarily want to bore you again, with the intricacies of this super complex plan. Listeners have a whole 30-minute episode if they want to get into the nitty gritty of that. But overall, things are going as planned. There have been three releases up to now for a total of 24,000 tons of water discharged into the ocean. TEPCO, which is the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the Fukushima plant, as well as the Japanese government and the IAEA, which is a U.N. agency that monitors the nuclear industry around the world, now they all say that they've been carefully monitoring how many radioactive substances — known as radionuclides or radio isotopes — are entering the ocean.

Shaun McKenna 03:46

I remember one called tritium?

Mara Budgen 03:48

Yes, especially one called tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen that the filtering system doesn't remove from the water that is released. And TEPCO and the government say the substances that we haven't removed, they have all been within the safety limits, so there's really nothing to worry about. However, many are still fearful that this is causing marine pollution. In Japan, for example, there's a group of about 150 people who are suing the national government in the Fukushima District Court, demanding that the release be stopped. And abroad citizens in South Korea, and some governments of Pacific Island countries continue to press Japan to stop the entire thing.

Shaun McKenna 04:32

OK, so there's still some pushback against the plan, even though it's gone forward. What about the experts like the scientists, what are they saying about the plan now that it's underway?

Mara Budgen 04:43

Many of the scientists and experts in the fields of nuclear energy and nuclear pollution say that the amount of radioactivity in the water is so low that they don't expect it will have any adverse effects. One scientist, Nigel Marks of Curtin University in Australia, he told me that if you were to eat only fish living near the point where the Fukushima water is released for an entire lifetime, the dose of radiation that you would get would be equivalent to a dental X-ray. And the radiation just from tritium would be like eating a bite of a banana.

Shaun McKenna 05:23

A regular banana?

Mara Budgen 05:24

Yes, any old banana. I mean, you don't have to eat an old one. But yeah, Shaun, some foods naturally contain very small amounts of radiation. However, having said all that, I cannot deny that there are some scientists and experts who have raised concerns about the longer term effects of radioactivity in the environment. Now, that doesn't mean that eating a piece of fish from Fukushima or from the Pacific Ocean isn't safe, but some people are concerned about our cumulative exposure to radiation. So we are already exposed to many sources of radioactivity, some of it occurs naturally...

Shaun McKenna 06:01

Some of it comes in bananas, apparently.

Mara Budgen 06:03

Yeah, Shaun, let's not make people afraid of eating bananas, now.

Shaun McKenna 6:06

I don’t wanna get sued by Chiquita, no.

Mara Budgen 6:10

But as we were saying, you know, some of this radiation is natural, but some of it actually comes from things that humankind has done, like testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific Ocean 60 or 70 odd years ago. And on that, actually, those same weapons tests that severely affected many Pacific Island nations. So that experience is the backdrop against which some of their governments and their citizens believe that the Fukushima release violates their right to ensure that the Pacific Ocean is no longer used as a nuclear waste ground so to speak.

Shaun McKenna 06:47

Well, the Pacific Island nations aren't the only ones who voiced disappointment with the Fukushima water release. Where do the others stand now, China and Russia?

Mara Budgen 06:57

Yeah, the issue does have strong geopolitical and diplomatic implications, which I believe you talked about on another Deep Dive episode with our colleagues, Anika Osaki Exum and Gabriele Ninivaggi, right? Yeah, that's because Russia, Hong Kong and especially China have all banned the import of marine products from Japan, anything from seafood to seaweed and sea salt, because they oppose the release. Now, whether they are genuinely concerned about marine pollution, or they're using this issue as a way of putting pressure on Japan is up for debate. But especially when it comes to China, this has put a strain on an already strained relationship, though, things might be evolving because the Japanese and Chinese leaders met recently.

Shaun McKenna 07:48

Yeah we spoke to Gabriel Dominguez about that two weeks ago actually.

Mara Budgen 07:52

Course I remember that. And just after the leaders met, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa asked her Chinese counterpart to reverse the ban on Japanese products. Now, that hasn't happened yet. But both sides said that they would hold talks on the issue. You know, what's fascinating to me is that this whole Fukushima issue is related to the broader question of nuclear energy. So what I've found is that people who are opposed to nuclear energy also tend to be opposed to the water release, and vice versa for those who are in favor. And this is even true among scientists.

Shaun McKenna 08:41

Speaking of nuclear energy, right now, COP28 is happening in the United Arab Emirates in Dubai, and Japan has joined a U.S.-led coalition to try to triple the world's nuclear energy capacity. I'm guessing the Japanese government will continue to lean into nuclear energy in 2024.

Mara Budgen 08:58

Yeah, while the Fukushima water released may not be the source of radioactive pollution that's so many feared. The issue is really related to the broader question of whether Japan wants to return to using nuclear energy the way it was before the accident at Fukushima No. 1, or Fukushima Daiichi, in March 2011. Let's remind everyone listening that all Japan's nuclear reactors were halted after that. Currently, 12 of the 33 reactors that have cleared the safety checks have been reactivated. But Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is determined to get more reactors switched on and even wants to build new ones. The government says that this is essential for Japan to meet its climate goals. Japan has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. And nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases directly during operations. Right now, nuclear energy accounts for less than 10% of Japan's energy, and the government plans to raise this to around 20% by 2030. And this is compared to 30% before the 2011 disaster, by the way. So, if you want to be optimistic, you could say that, given the Fukushima experience, Japan has learned from past mistakes and can operate a safer nuclear industry. A more cynical view, however, is that the government really needs to clean up the mess that was created in Fukushima, in order to justify its desire to restart nuclear energy to show the public that it's safe, and that they don't risk another Fukushima scenario.

Shaun McKenna 10:42

Well, all that energy will need to go into powering our air conditioners, it seems like...

CLIP 10:48

Last month was the hottest October on record globally. And now scientists say this means 2023 is expected to be the warmest year ever recorded.

Mara Budgen 10:57

Well, the big environment story of the year for Japan was the Fukushima water release, it was the heat that dominated climate news around the world. This year is set to be the hottest year on record for our planet. And, I'm sorry to say, the prospects are grim because 2024 is expected to be even hotter, according to predictions by scientists, including at NASA. And in Japan, we experienced both the hottest summer and autumn on record in 2023.

Shaun McKenna 11:30

Right, so hearing that I spent a lot of the past years without an air conditioner, actually because it broke. But this year, I started to get really worried that there would be this like one heat wave where I'd regret not having the AC. So I did get a brand new one. But hearing that it's likely, you know, going to get worse next year. I think, you know, just hearing that gave me this pang of unease.

Mara Budgen 11:55

You mean the kind of unease that you feel knowing that 2024 is predicted to be even hotter than 2023?

Shaun McKenna 12:03

I think you know where I'm going with this, right. So if anyone listening feels like they are more of a lightweight environment news consumer, then two pieces I want to recommend checking out from this year were on the societal impacts of climate change. So one was by our colleague Joel Tansey, and it talks about ways to alleviate climate anxiety. Specifically, if you're living in Japan. The other piece was by Tomoko Otake, about the change of seasonality. So as a country that prides itself on having all four seasons, this year, it seemed like summer and autumn kind of blended into one.

Mara Budgen 12:34

You know, I think the both those stories highlight how we're at this point in which the science and the predictions about climate change are converging with our lived experience of what it is like to exist in the era of global warming — or global heating, or even global boiling, as some have called it as warming just sounds too mild in their view. And beyond just looking at, you know, abstract graphs, showing how average temperatures just keep rising, we can now really all relate to what it means to go through such suffocating summers, for example, especially those without air conditioners. So in Japan, temperatures were 1.76 degrees hotter, that's degrees Celsius, on average, than between 1991, which is the year I was born, incidentally, and 2020. And in Tokyo, where I spent a substantial part of this summer, unfortunately, temperatures in mid July soared to almost nine degrees above the seasonal average.

Shaun McKenna 13:44

Yeah, it was hot.

Mara Budgen 13:45

Yes, it was. Though, you know, I would warn people against assuming simple direct causes and effects like, “It's hot, so there's global warming,” or “It's cold, so there's no global warming.” You know, the science, like determining the effects of climate change, is way more complicated than that. And I think what it's also hard to grasp is the cascade of effects that these changes in our climate are having on all aspects of our lives, and the social and the ecological systems that we are a part of. You know, if we were to look just at the impact on the natural world, we could spend at least another episode of the podcast talking about that, if not a whole other podcast series, you know, focusing on that. But just looking at the impacts on human health, for example, our colleague Tomoko, who you mentioned earlier, wrote an article about the challenges the heat poses for an aging country like Japan.

Shaun McKenna 14:41

Yeah, that story, which came out in July, was titled “In Japan, extreme heat and an aging population are a deadly mix.” Just in case people want to look that up.

Mara Budgen 14:52

Yeah, I mean, the headline says it all right? So the average number of people who died of heatstroke related causes increased by six-and-a-half times from the second half of the 1990s, compared with a period between 2018 and 2022, and 80% of these deaths were among people over 65. And in the article, Tomoko describes the challenges of construction workers toiling at a building site in Tokyo under the summer heat, which highlights the effects of heat waves and other climate change impacts on workers, and therefore on the economy. So, you know, for example, if people are prevented from working, this impacts their ability to support themselves. And if they do work under certain dire conditions, this could harm their health. But as I was saying before, the impacts sometimes are even more subtle and the article you mentioned by Tomoko on the changes in seasonality really brings that point home. Japanese culture, you know, it's so deeply rooted in the rhythmic flow of the four seasons, but this could all change as global heating makes summers longer and autumns shorter, to the point that some scientists warn that Japan may even become a country of two seasons, just summer and bam, winter.

Shaun McKenna 16:09

Right. Well, we're seeing this already in the fact that some of the traditional summer fireworks displays are being shifted from summer to autumn, because the summers are so hot. And there have also been discussions about moving the big summer music festivals which tend to take place outdoors, the two cooler times of the year.

Mara Budgen 16:27

No summer parties, boo.

Shaun McKenna 16:30

Everybody staying in. Staying in is the new going out.

Mara Budgen 16:32

And you know, even right now, we're going through the coveted autumn foliage season. But this is happening later and later. So for example, in Tokyo, the official start of the maple leaf color changes has been between Nov. 26, and Nov. 30, in the past years, but in the 1950s, it was between Nov. 8 and 15.

Shaun McKenna 16:56

Actually, just circling back to our quick mention of climate anxiety that's happening in Japan as well. But from what I understand, it's not to the extent that it is in other countries. So I was surprised to learn from Joel's article that some people think it's not as big a deal in Japan because the population is largely older and climate anxiety is something that tends to affect younger people.

Mara Budgen 17:20

I mean, that's true. But Joe's article also mentions that increasingly, both in Japan and outside of Japan, people don't see climate change as something affecting someone else far away, or that it's something that will happen further in the future. They see it as something that can adversely affect them and their loved ones here and now, which is understandable, given that the risks are real. And even if we're not feeling anxious, per se, I think many of us are grappling with the psychological effects of a feeling of uncertainty, and lack of safety, due to potential natural disasters, or even just seeing the world around us change so much. So I'm from northern Italy, for example. And I cannot describe the sense of sadness in seeing glaciers in the Alps literally disappear in front of our eyes. I've seen so many shrink, or even disappear, even in my relatively short lifespan. But Joel's article does give us some hope. Basically, to alleviate feelings of anxiety and of worry, we should try and take action. Even small, simple actions, like growing some of your own food, for example, can help us feel empowered, and that we're doing something to make things better.

Shaun McKenna 18:55

This broad change in seasons and temperatures is having an effect on Japan's wildlife too. So this was the year of the urban bear, which we spoke about with Alex K.T. Martin a few episodes back, and he told us that a combination of rising temperatures and a bad harvest for the food that the bears were eating was responsible for the increasing incidences of bears invading urban areas.

Mara Budgen 19:19

Yeah and as I kind of hinted at earlier, I like going to the mountains for hiking and outdoor sport, right? And this year, even just anecdotally, I heard a lot about bear attacks happening. And this has just been corroborated by some statistics. This was actually the worst year since 2006 for bear attacks in Japan, and the environment ministry recorded 193 attacks between April and November, in which six people unfortunately died.

Shaun McKenna 19:50

I think that Alex has done a lot of good coverage of wildlife this year and he won a prize for his piece on wild animals taking over the abandoned towns of Fukushima and, again, he wrote more recently on the spate of bear attacks. So Mara, since you're here, I want to get your thoughts on COP28. It's taking place this week in the UAE, and it will last until Dec. 12. So next week. I know it's hard for us to make predictions on what will come out of it. But where does Japan stand heading into the conference?

Mara Budgen 20:22

So our colleague, Eric Johnston, wrote an article before COP28 started on Nov. 30, and it was about what Japan was likely to contribute to the conference and that the likely focus would be its relationship with coal. That's exactly what has happened so far.

Shaun McKenna 20:40

Oh nice, Eric called it.

Mara Budgen 20:41

He did. Well done, Eric. So Japan gets a third of its electricity from coal. And the government aims to reduce this by 2030, but only to about 20%. And this is even though many environmental organizations say that to reach climate goals by reducing emissions, coal use should stop completely by the end of the decade. Prime Minister Kishida went to COP28 last week and pledged that Japan would not start building any more coal fired power plants at home. But to be precise, he said “unabated coal plants,” And this is in contrast to so-called abated coal, where the plants are actually fitted with technology to reduce emissions.

Shaun McKenna 21:26

So the unabated coal plants don't have this technology. They're kind of dirtier.

Mara Budgen 21:32

They're very dirty. And note also that Kishida’s promise doesn't affect new plants that are already under construction, which are three, according to the government. Generally speaking, Japan is a strong proponent of using technology to make coal cleaner

Shaun McKenna 21:49

Right, clean coal. I've heard that before. It's a bit of an oxymoron. I wonder what oxymoron is in Japanese?

Mara Budgen 21:57

I have no idea.

Shaun McKenna 21:58

I can just quickly look it up on my phone. Hold on. Ah, mujun gohō.

Mara Budgen 22:04

OK. Thanks for the Japanese lesson. Well, spoiler alert, clean coal is a mujun gohō. So Japan is a proponent of so-called carbon capture usage and storage. What a mouthful. This technology is known as CCUS. And it's not still been proven to be effective, kind of at all. And Japan is also a promoter of using a method called coal firing in thermal power plants. And this is where a small portion of coal or gas is replaced with alternative fuels like hydrogen or ammonia in order to lower emissions. But while it's true that, for example, ammonia doesn't emit CO2, when burned, is production can cause significant greenhouse gas emissions and even air pollution. So we actually have a really good article about that titled, “Japan sticks with a climate solution that critics say is far from clean.”

Shaun McKenna 23:03

That's one by Annelise Giseburt. So we'll put that in the show notes.

Mara Budgen 23:08

There'll be a lot of reading for our listeners. So going back to coal, Japan is so vested in these technologies to make coal cleaner, that although it agreed to stop financing the construction of coal fired power plants overseas back in 2021, it is still pushing for the adoption of CCUS and of coal firing in countries in the Asia Pacific. In fact, Japan is hosting a summit in Tokyo this month on establishing a zero carbon emission framework together with Australia and Southeast Asian nations. It is expected that at this meeting, they will focus more on technological fixes, like CCUS and cofiring, rather than the adoption of renewable energy, for example. Unsurprisingly, perhaps a lot of Japanese companies are involved in the building and financing of these technologies. So basically, Japan is the only G7 country that has not specified when or even if it plans to phase out the use of coal domestically.

Shaun McKenna 24:17

So I guess I know why. I saw the headline earlier this week about Japan getting the fossil award again.

Mara Budgen 24:23

Yeah, right at COP28 climate activists singled Japan out for its reluctance to abandon fossil fuels together with the United States and New Zealand. Japan was one of the first recipients of this award called The Fossil of the Day, which was handed out at COP28. So this is a kind of satirical award that is given to countries seen as backward in addressing climate change, and is handed out by the Climate Action Network, an environmental group at U.N. climate conferences. Japan has actually received this dishonor at every COP since 2019. Funnily enough, Shaun, if you happen to see these mock award ceremonies, there's always someone dressed in a Pikachu costume when Japan is given the fossil award.

Shaun McKenna 25:12

Oh, no, they gotta drag Pikachu and all of this. Right? Well, so Japan at COP28. So far, not so good.

Mara Budgen 25:19

Well, it's not all bad. But before we get into that, you know, if Japan insists on developing and investing in technologies that will prolong the use of fossil fuels like coal, many fear that this will take time, money, and generally speaking resources away from increasing the share of renewables in its energy mix, which is currently around 20%. So there's definitely room for improvement there.

Shaun McKenna 25:47

So we just don't need this new idea. We just need to stick to the path of focusing on renewables.

Mara Budgen 25:52

That's what many scientists and activists would say.

Shaun McKenna 25:56

So Mara, give me some good news for Japan at COP28.

Mara Budgen 26:02

I'll do my best. So the very first day of the conference, the attending governments announced the creation of a so-called loss and damage fund. Now, this is a global fund to help lower and middle income countries deal with the damage caused by climate change, such as extreme weather and rising sea levels, and has been in the works for many years. So this was kind of a groundbreaking moment. Japan pledged to contribute $10 million to this fund. Now, if you consider, for example, that the U.S. has pledged $17.5 million, given the relative sizes of the economies, Japan's pledge is actually quite high. Good news, huh? But then again, you know, smaller economies than Japan, like the U.K. and Italy, shout out for Italy, have actually pledged a lot more. Generally speaking at COP, Kishida said that Japan is on track to reach its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 46% by 2030. And it will continue to aim for an even higher 50% cut in emissions, so kind of a more aspirational goal. But analysts say that Japan's trajectory in reducing emissions is actually not in line with the fundamental aim of the entire COP process, which is, as you know, Shaun, to reach the goals set by the global treaty, known as the Paris Agreement, to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and aiming for 1.5 C by the end of the century, compared to pre industrial levels. A goal by the way, that the world is nowhere near achieving, according to the UN.

Shaun McKenna 27:51

Well, without getting into climate anxiety, Mara, where do we stand heading into 2024.

Mara Budgen 27:57

I'm a little nervous about being too optimistic to be honest. You know, not to fall into the kind of doom and gloom narrative that environmental campaigners are often associated with, but the stark reality is that the world Japan included just isn't acting fast enough. You asked me to come on to the show to review the top environmental stories coming out of Japan in 2023, right? That really made me think that if year after year goes by like this one, all this is just going to feel more and more normal. Just another hot summer, we’ll say. And in parallel, the need for action could feel less and less urgent.

Shaun McKenna 28:46

So cue the sad trumpet.

Mara Budgen 28:52

Yeah, sorry, Shaun, I was supposed to make you feel less anxious.

Shaun McKenna 28:55

No Mara, we need you to tell us the truth, even if we can't handle the truth.

Mara Budgen 28:59

“Can handle the truth.” OK, so if we do need to end on a bright note, I'd point you to something that Joel highlighted in his article on climate anxiety when it comes to the climate and ecological degradation more generally, we're all part of the problem. These issues are environmental. But the root causes more often than not are social. But by the same token, because we have to act to tackle these issues, we can quite easily become part of the solution. And I think there's a sense of power in that.

Shaun McKenna 29:34

Well, that's a good point to end on. Sometimes we may feel powerless when we're hit with a barrage of news about the environment. But I think a big part of alleviating that anxiety is just simply learning more about it. The news out of COP28 is changing all the time. So follow our coverage on it at japantimes. Mara Budgen thanks for coming on and Happy New Year.

Mara Budgen 29:57

Thanks, Shaun, and Happy New Year. Don't be anxious in 2024!

Shaun McKenna 30:05

My thanks again to Mara Budgen for coming on the show. I'm going to take a second to plug the Our Planet section, which is handled by Joel Tansey and Chris Russell. They've been at this for about a year and I think they've provided a lot of good stories from Japan, a region we don't hear nearly enough about in broader English-language environment journalism. So, congratulations to them. Elsewhere in the news, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has a message to his fellow politicians: cancel the year-end parties. The prime minister made the request to Liberal Democratic Party executives to refrain from hosting fundraisers for the time being, as more and more of these kinds of events were being hit with allegations of underreporting their use of funds and failing to report extra income from them. The United States has grounded its fleet of Osprey V-22 tilt-rotor aircrafts a week after eight service members died in a crash off Kagoshima Prefecture’s Yakushima island last week. A preliminary investigation indicated that this was because of problems with the aircraft and not a mistake by the crew. Staff reporter Jesse Johnson writes that while the Osprey has a history of accidents, including a 2016 crash off Okinawa Prefecture. Last week's incident was the deadliest since the aircraft went into operation in 2007. Finally, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike expressed the city's intention this week to make high school tuition in the metropolis free of charge for all students regardless of family income. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the average cost of tuition at private high schools in Tokyo stands at just over ¥483,000 — that's almost US$3,300. Though, when combined with other fees, the average amount of money needed for the school year is just under ¥957,000, or $6,500. There are subsidies already in place that assist low-income families in Tokyo with the costs but Koike expressed her intention to make both public and private high schools free for all students. She said while details of the plan are yet to be solidified, she hopes it can go into effect in the 2024 fiscal year. Deep Dive from The Japan Times is produced by Dave Cortez, our outgoing music is by Oscar Boyd, and our theme music is by the Japanese musician LLLL. I'm Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.