Dec. 11 marked the 25th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark treaty that put the idea of global effort to save the planet on many national radars. To mark the event, The Japan Times has launched a new section, Our Planet, that will look at the climate crisis, earth science and disaster management from a Japanese perspective. Two of the section’s editors, Joel Tansey and Chris Russell, join the show to discuss how the Kyoto Protocol is viewed now and how the city it’s named for has taken to its green mantle.

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Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Shaun McKenna  00:08  

Hello and welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna. This past Sunday, Dec. 11, marked 25 years since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark treaty that set mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions but, which I should note, didn't actually come into effect until Feb. 16, 2005. 

Coinciding with this anniversary, The Japan Times has established Our Planet. It’s a new section that focuses on a broad range of topics affecting Japan and the planet as a whole, including the climate crisis, earth science and disaster mitigation. Here with me on today's show to talk more about the new section are Joel Tansey and Chris Russell, two of the editors spearheading the project. 

And just a note to listeners, we originally planned to also speak with contributing writer Mara Budgen about the Japanese giant salamander on this show, but what she said ended up being so interesting that we decided to make her section its own episode, which we’ll release later this week. 

For now though, let’s get to Chris and Joel. 

Clip: Kofi Annan  01:11  

Dear friends, today we celebrate the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol. This is a great stride forward in our struggle to confront one of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century: climate change.

Shaun McKenna  01:30  

We just heard a clip of then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, talking about the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. With me in the studio today are two of my colleagues, Joel Tansey, welcome, Joel. 

Joel Tansey 01:41

Hello, Shaun. 

Shaun McKenna 01:42

And Chris Russell, welcome, Chris. 

Chris Russell 01:43

Great to be back, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 01:44

Both Joel, Chris and another colleague, Dan Traylor, have launched a new section in The Japan Times called Our Planet. Joel, what prompted you guys to launch the page?

Joel Tansey  01:54  

So for us, I think there were a few factors behind why we decided to start Our Planet. You know, first and foremost, we all recognize just how important of an issue this was, you know, I'm speaking specifically about climate change but also, you know, being in Japan, you know, this is a very disaster-prone country and very susceptible to earthquakes, typhoons, tsunami … there's a lot of need, I think for you know, good journalism, on disaster preparedness and geoscience. And I really felt that, while we've had some great stories appear in The Japan Times, and of course, and other outlets in the past. And as far as English-language journalism on these topics, I felt there was a bit of a need there. So that's part of what we're hoping to fill with this new section. 

Personally, I also became a father about a year ago. And since that time, it's really kind of put a new perspective on the climate crisis for me, you know, my daughter will be 79, when 2100 comes around, you know, that's well, within the, you know, expected life expectancy ranges in Japan. So, she will be around to see some of the worst consequences of climate change and, you know, aside from the fact that climate change is happening faster than, you know, anyone really imagined, or me to think of the world that she'll live in, when she's, you know, a senior citizen, is kind of terrifying, in a sense. So there's a bit of a personal aspect for that as well.

Shaun McKenna  03:17  

Right, and congratulations on becoming a father. Chris? How did Joel convince you to get on board with this new section? Where do your interests lie on the topic?

Chris Russell  03:24  

Yeah, so I mean, it was kind of an easy sell, really, I think, you know, for the reasons that Joel just outlined. But I mean, particularly for me the chance to kind of engage with climate change, you know, that was something that really kind of appealed and, you know, again, as he says, you know, it's such an important topic, and especially for Japan, it does feel like it's underserved. You know, I think there's a lot of really great climate journalism coming out, you know, around the world, that impacts the things that people are doing, the policy and whatnot. And, you know, there is obviously a bit of that for Japan here and there. But it does feel like there's so much more that could be said — so much more that should be said — and so to have a part of the paper that can really kind of dig into that, can really engage with those issues, you know, that was just an obviously kind of good thing to me. 

One thing I would say, though, I think that although we've kind of got a new sort of solid home for climate change, I think one thing I would sort of stress, though, is that it's not kind of the only home for climate stories within the paper. You know, one of the kind of mantras I think you have now in climate journalism is that it's not a beat, it's a lens. You know, we're talking about this massive issue that kind of requires a sort of society-wide sort of transformation to kind of really tackle properly. And, you know, so that affects all areas, you know, even if you're working in sort of culture, sports, you know, you're not outside of the impact of climate change. You know, we're kind of seeing this, so for instance, with the Qatar World Cup or, you know, the bidding around like the Winter Olympics, we have, you know, with Sapporo as one of the candidates like it's an issue that touches everything, so kind of everyone needs to be aware of it and needs to be kind of bearing it in mind. But, that said, to have a kind of focused area, having a sort of solid home for it, I think is really, like, essential. And yeah, so the chance to kind of work on that and sort of build it from the ground up was obviously really appealing.

Shaun McKenna  05:20  

When Deep Dive came back from its hiatus this past October, our first topic was related to the climate crisis. More specifically, it was on the struggle that it seems Japanese climate experts and activists are having when it comes to getting the public interested and engaged with environmental stories. Joel, you and two other Japan Times writers Tomoko Otake and Dan Traylor, wrote a piece for the Our Planet section titled “From Kyoto Protocol to fossil awards, Japan's climate image stained by inaction,” and I noticed that you came up with a somewhat similar conclusion in your piece.

Joel Tansey  05:55  

Yeah, I feel like in the course of reporting that piece, one of the take home kind of messages for me was that, you know, Japanese people have long seen global warming as much more of an economic issue rather than a climate issue. And you can kind of see that going back, you know, many years to the oil shock in 1973, Japan being a very resource poor country, was affected particularly harshly by that oil shock, and then a subsequent one, in ’79. And what the government really did at that time was quite remarkable, it was a conscious and very detailed emphasis on energy conservation and energy efficiency. And that actually allowed Japan to become one of the more energy efficient economies in the world. That kind of mentality has really even been seen, you know, in more recent months, you know, the war on Ukraine, a new strain on energy. And you've seen local governments successfully ask people to conserve energy. So a lot of those steps that make the Japanese economy more efficient, actually lended itself to climate change, in a sense, you know, this is, we're talking about steps that were taken in the ’70s and ’80s. So the Japanese government at that time was not thinking “global warming,” but in a way, it did make it a more efficient economy, which is good for the climate. 

But one problem that that spurred in the ’90s, when people really started to take global warming much more seriously, was that the Japanese government found it very difficult to go any further. They had already made their economy very efficient. And, you know, the kind of low-hanging fruit, as one researcher put it, that was available to other countries was just simply not available to Japan to, you know, make its economy more energy efficient and to, you know, Japan has a very robust transportation system. So, you know, emphasizing public transportation was not really an option available to the Japanese government either. While Japan didn't maybe have that low-hanging fruit available to it, there were bolder steps that it could have taken.

Shaun McKenna  07:54  

So as of fiscal 2021, not-so-environmentally friendly fossil fuels have accounted for about 73% of the country's energy mix, led by natural gas at 34.4%. Coal at 31%. And then oil at 7.4%. Has Japan made any commitments toward expanding the use of renewable energy sources?

Joel Tansey  08:15  

So yeah, Japan has vowed to increase its percentage of renewable energy sources as part of its energy mix to 36-38% by 2030. You know, a lot of activists and climate scientists have said that that's not nearly enough. But that is the current plan on its energy mix, which also still includes, you know, a very high percentage of fossil fuels. 

And one kind of very contentious topic in this area, of course, nuclear power, which remains, you know, a very controversial source of energy in Japan following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the Fukushima disaster that followed. 

News clip 08:49

Joel Tansey  09:08

Recently, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has really put more emphasis on restarting some of these dormant nuclear plants and it remains to be seen, you know, how successful he'll be in getting that to happen because of local opposition and various other factors.

Shaun McKenna  09:22  

Right. So that would be a way to get Japan to meet its kind of 1.5 degree Celsius warming targets without actually having to switch to renewable sources.

Joel Tansey  09:32  

That would certainly help Japan on its way to reducing its carbon emissions by 2030. And then, of course, net zero by 2050 is the Japanese government's target. You know, increasing nuclear power would certainly allow them to reduce the use of fossil fuels over that time.

Shaun McKenna  10:02

Chris, your contribution to the rollout of the Our Planet section was a piece titled “25 years after Kyoto Protocol, the UN climate process stumbles on.” The protocol was adopted at COP3, we've just had COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, how does history judge the Kyoto Protocol now?

Chris Russell  10:20  

So I think the view on it is a little bit mixed, perhaps kind of, in the simplest terms, it actually did kind of work. So what I mean by that is that all the countries that were members of the Kyoto protocol and had the emissions targets that it set, did kind of meet them or they were in compliance with them. But some of the countries had to use these kind of market based mechanisms, which allowed sort of emissions trading or investments in reduction projects in other countries to kind of count towards their targets. And, you know, those kind of carbon trading, you know, emissions trading kind of projects, you know, that was quite a significant development with the protocol. And, you know, there are some studies that indicate countries with emissions targets have kind of seen sort of sustained reductions in emissions compared to, kind of, equivalent countries. So there was some impact but, you know, the big kind of issue with it was that a lot of the major emitters weren't party to it. So, notably, that was the U.S., you know, even before the protocol was signed, you know, Congress was kind of indicating its opposition to it. Famously, under like George W. Bush, you know, the U.S. never embraced the Kyoto Protocol. And part of the justification for that was that the Kyoto Protocol focused on developed countries, with the idea being that they would take the lead, and then developing nations would follow on afterwards. And among those developing nations, you had, you know, countries like China. And, you know, the U.S. argument was that complying with the Kyoto Protocol was going to be a bit of economic disaster for them. And that, you know, countries like China should be included. So this is kind of where the sort of failure emerges, is that although in the countries that did follow the process, there were some positive outcomes. If you look at the big picture, you know, the emissions were still kind of trending upwards, you know, you were missing the U.S., which was the top emitter, at the time, you were missing China, which went on to become the top emitter in the world, you know, so really, it didn't get us to where we need to be now. And, you know, that was why we had to kind of have the Paris Agreement, there had to be a kind of a rethink of how to approach this kind of international agreement on the issue so that all countries could kind of participate. And so there could be kind of real progress towards halting global warming.

Shaun McKenna  12:36  

You know, when speaking of the legacy of the Kyoto Protocol, one of the things that I remember, a very small thing, was that German Chancellor Angela Merkel popularized the phrase, “Do you Kyoto?” meaning, you know, are you working on things to kind of stop climate change?

In fact, I believe there was even a song about it. 

Do You Kyoto 12:53

Shaun McKenna  13:06

Of course we didn’t just get a song out of it, Joel in your piece you go into more detail on what Kyoto itself has learned from being the symbolic center of our efforts to fight global warming back in the day. How has Kyoto taken on that mantle? 

Joel Tansey  13:18  

Yeah, so the main overarching theme of the reporting was that Japan has not done enough on climate change. But one of the things that did come out of my interviews with experts was that the city of Kyoto has actually taken its position, as you know, the, you know, the name of the Kyoto Protocol, and the host of COP3, which is where the Kyoto Protocol was signed, quite seriously. And they've put in various initiatives to try to get its citizens really on board with thinking greener and, you know, taking action on climate change. I think the best example of that is the Miyako Ecology Center, which is owned by the city of Kyoto, and run by a local nonprofit. And that center is really kind of a museum on climate change but it's also a place to educate its citizens about what they can do to make a difference and what they can do to, you know, help in this climate fight. You know, for example, there's a rooftop garden there that, you know, local volunteers and families can come and plant various vegetables. There's, you know, solar panels, which helps meet some of the, you know, the center's energy needs. And there's various displays that really show people the impact of their, you know, kind of wasteful habits and how they can improve them.

Shaun McKenna  14:30

One of the things I hear from climate writers when it comes to trying to have an impact on the environment, is that while it's great for us on individual levels to do things, like take fewer flights and drive less, a lot of the change that is needed to have an impact on making things better needs to come from governments and businesses. Joel, in your piece, you mentioned the idea of “green hushing,” which is kind of related to this idea of getting businesses to act more. Can you explain to us what that means?

Joel Tansey  14:56  

This was a new term for me as well, and I have to give credit to my colleague Dan Traylor for being the one that really pursued this section of the article. But basically, you know, green hushing is the idea that, you know, companies are taking greener action and, you know, taking action on climate, but they're not actually publicizing it. And, you know, that is problematic for a couple of reasons. I mean, first of all, it's hard to keep companies You know, accountable whether they're actually reaching these targets or not, if they're not, you know, publicizing it, making that information available and transparent. 

Another reason it's problematic is that a lot of what needs to be done on climate comes at the corporate level. And of course, we need, you know, companies taking strong action on climate and hopefully inspiring their competitors to also take similar actions. So, if companies are being very, you know, hush hush about what they're actually doing on climate, it's very hard to have either scrutiny or very hard for other companies to be inspired by what they're seeing from their peers. 

Chris Russell  15:56 

Yeah, and if I can just kind of weigh in on that, too, I think, with the current sort of architecture that we have around these sort of climate negotiations with Paris, and so on, you know, a really key part of that is yeah, having this sort of transparency, and then the kind of the resulting scrutiny and also just encouraging others to do things. And so you have what's kind of called like an ambition loop of, you know, more organizations, more companies kind of joining this sort of fight, you know, announcing net zero goals, and that inspiring others, and that kind of creating sort of coalitions of sort of change or like a wider movement towards action. And that can then have a big impact on the national level. So, I mean, one of the sort of persistent kind of frustrations with the UN climate talks, you know, and we kind of saw this in Egypt last month is that, you know, there is sort of a lack of ambition in many countries. And, you know, if you have a lot of domestically, you know, organizations, companies, civil society movements and so on, all pushing for net zero or pushing to kind of hit the, you know, 1.5 degree target and so on, then it's a lot easier, there's a lot more pressure at the national level to do things and then, once you have that, that's kind of further pressure on other countries to kind of follow suit. So you can have a real kind of knock-on effect, this kind of green hushing. 

Joel Tansey  17:13  

And just to kind of localize the last point that Chris was making, you know, Japan has set a net zero target for 2050. But that target came after many local governments had already set their own net zero target. So you see that kind of knock-on effect of the national government, you know, following the local government in this case, and you know, that inspiration or that push from outside is really quite important, I think.

Shaun McKenna  17:36  

I guess the old saying is true, “Act Local.” So can you give us a sneak peek at other stories that you're working on for this section? 

Joel Tansey  17:42  

Yeah. So we've got one of our writers, Tomoko Otake, looking at solar panels in Tokyo and the push from the Metropolitan Government to have more houses with solar panels on the roofs.

Chris Russell  17:52  

And in terms of other climate-linked stories, one of our writers, Alex Martin, is sort of taking a look at sort of wildlife human interactions, if not conflict, and, you know, what is sort of being done about that, and sort of the kind of situation there. And as well, next year, we're going to have a story looking at kind of an aspect of Japanese food culture, and the role that that can kind of possibly play in having a sort of more sustainable diet and more kind of climate-friendly diet. And what can kind of be learned from that and, you know, applied elsewhere and how people are kind of thinking about that.

Joel Tansey  18:26  

I do want to emphasize that this section is not just about climate-related issues. You know, Japan is a very disaster-prone country. We do want to cover a lot of, you know, disaster prevention and mitigation type stories. So we have, one of our writers, Will Fee, heading up to Tohoku to talk to some leading disaster research scientists and excited to see what comes out of that reporting tip.

Shaun McKenna  18:47  

Right, sounds good. Joel Tansey and Chris Russell, thanks very much for coming on Deep Dive. 

Chris Russell 18:53

Thanks for having us, Shaun.

Joel Tansey  18:54  

Thanks for having us.

Shaun McKenna 18:59

My thanks again to Joel and Chris for joining me on Deep Dive. And, a reminder that this is a shorter episode since we’re making our interview with Mara Budgen on the Japanese giant salamander its own episode, which will be released on Friday. 

Elsewhere in the news, as a followup to last week’s Deep Dive on the Unification Church, the Japanese parliament on Saturday did indeed enact a law to ban organizations from maliciously soliciting donations from individuals. While it was a bit of a political victory for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to get the law passed so quickly, lawyers for previous victims of those duped by religious organizations maintain that the law still has many deficiencies. 

Another story that has been getting quite a bit of attention on The Japan Times, Linda Gould has written a piece on the emotional decision to leave Japan, specifically if you’ve lived here for a long time. With the pandemic winding down enough to make airline travel possible again, some in the international community have mixed feelings about how they were treated over the past couple of years and some have come to the conclusion that being closer to family is more important to them than they realized. Read Linda’s piece and then be sure to check out the conversation surrounding it on social media platforms. 

Our episode today was produced by Dave Cortez, our outgoing track comes courtesy of Oscar Boyd and our theme music was composed and performed by the Japanese artist LLLL. Until next time, podtsukaresama.