Friday, June 27, 2008

Still cool on halting global warming

Adam Morton 
The Age, June 28, 2008

Japan is moving to tackle climate change in numerous small ways, but when it comes to making large-scale carbon cuts  of the order environmentalists say are needed to avert global disaster, it is one country among many that appears to lack the necessary will.

THERE are no forlorn pictures of polar bears on vanishing ice floes in the Japanese Government ads designed to save the planet. No threatened coral reefs, no celebrities with warnings of environmental catastrophe. Just 15 less-than-photogenic business executives, grinning awkwardly from the pages of financial daily Nihon Keizai Shinbun, dressed in short sleeves and comfy slacks.

Written in Japanese characters above the smiling chief executives is "Cool Biz" — a slogan designed to encourage office workers to do their bit to halt the globe's slide towards dangerous climate change. Under a campaign that began with public servants three years ago and has gradually extended into the private sector, professionals are asked to forgo air-conditioning. In return for setting the climate control to a minimum 28 degrees during summer, they get to shed their jackets and ties.

Perhaps proving that little captures the imagination like a bad pun, Cool Biz has taken hold in Tokyo, with about 10,000 businesses making an online pledge to take part this year.

"There have been various activities to prevent global warming but Cool Biz is the most successful — so far this year we have sold 100,000 pins (badges), mainly to business people," says Hiroaki Takagi, secretary-general of the Japan Centre for Climate Change Action.

To spend a couple of weeks in Japan is to see small innovations everywhere — all designed to combat climate change.

Instead of largely going to landfill, Tokyo's combustible waste is burned and converted to energy in state-of-the-art incineration plants, each feeding power back into the grid to supply up to 10,000 homes.

During winter, an experimental program gathers snow, mass refrigerates it and saves it for summer, when it is used to fuel emissions-free air-conditioning at aged-care homes and food storage warehouses.

Japan is also a country increasingly hooked on nuclear power. Stung by the oil shock of the 1970s, the country now has 55 nuclear power plants, providing roughly a third of its energy.

With oil prices again surging and climate change predictions worsening, Hideki Minamikawa, director-general of Japan's global environment unit, says it is considering plans to build an extra plant every year. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda says he wants to boost zero-emissions energy from about 40% to more than half of the supply. By comparison, coal-rich Australia has about 8%.

Based on per capita emissions (and putting aside safety concerns about nuclear power in an earthquake-prone archipelago), these policies seem to have Japan on the right track. Each Japanese is responsible for about 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, less than half that of Australia and the US.

Yet there are cracks in Japan's efforts to tackle climate change, problems that reflect the fissures in the race to reach a new global agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

Domestically, the Japanese Government is under attack from both sides, with the opposition accusing it of not going far enough and heavy industry angry about a proposed carbon trading scheme.

But it is on the global stage where it faces the biggest test. Japan is the world's fifth biggest greenhouse emitter, but the only country in the top five under pressure to meet its Kyoto target. (Of the others, the US has not ratified the treaty, Russia is on track and China and India are part of the Kyoto agreement but don't have binding targets.) Minamikawa says Japan's emissions are 12% higher than where they should be.

It is not alone. Many of the countries bound by Kyoto will miss their targets on current projections. New data released this week showed Australia remains on target, largely because then environment minister Robert Hill won a ridiculously good deal, allowing its emissions to keep going up.

Under the first phase of Kyoto, only industrialised countries are required to curb their emissions by 2012. The next stage is meant to be different, with all countries to make a binding commitment to reduce pollution. The impasse is over the extent of the cuts needed, and how the pain will be shared. Emerging giants China and India, backed by the European Union and the UN, want the rich to take the first step by promising reductions of up to 40% by 2020.

Earlier this month, Fukuda — with one eye on his place on the global stage hosting the G8 summit of rich nations next month — argued climate change would be the summit's main focus. He promised a "low-carbon revolution" in Japan, slashing emissions by up to 80% by 2050. He expressed confidence G8 leaders could be convinced of the need to cut global emissions in half by 2050 — a step they agreed to "seriously consider" 12 months ago.

Asked what the most important outcome from G8 would be, senior summit co-ordinator Kenichi Kobayashi told journalists: "We are aiming for results on climate change, especially on the long-term goal."

For a moment this seemed plausible. Adopting a firm position won unanimous endorsement at a recent meeting of G8 environment ministers.

But Fukuda's position has since started to crumble on both sides. The man in charge of the main game — the negotiations to broker a global deal between 190 countries by December next year — made headlines in Japan by chiding Fukuda for not going far enough. Arguing the world was running out of time, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer said the G8 should be setting concrete targets for not just 2050, but 2020. Now. Always dramatic, do Boer recently said: "I kneel in front of my bed every night and hope that we're going to get a 2020 commitment by the G8 countries, but I don't think my prayers are being heard at the moment."

It seems he is right. Japanese Government sources late this week confirmed the US was not on board, with President George Bush sticking to his view the G8 is not the right forum to seek a climate goal. His preference is to broker a deal through the Major Economies Meeting, a dialogue he set up last year including China, India and Brazil, that will meet on the sidelines at G8.

Despite Bush saying a deal was possible this year, it appears nothing will happen until there is a new leader in the White House.

While Fukuda appeared to back pedal — telling a news conference this week that the G8 climate goal could be "in any form" — those working for him were blunt about the state of global negotiations, with or without Bush.

Koji Tsuruoka, director-general of global affairs in the Japanese Foreign Affairs Department, suggested the recent environment ministers' pledge for a 2050 commitment meant nothing — they had no mandate. "If you don't have the leaders' attention, nothing will be solved," Tsuruoka told The Age.

"I am not very optimistic … there is no basis within the industrialised and the developing world (to agree) that this is a global challenge — the differences in position are very large."

Hiroshi Oki, a former environment minister who chaired the historic Kyoto meeting, says Japan needs to do more. For all its steps towards energy efficiency, he says it has been soft on industry. His point is illustrated by an elevated view of Tokyo, which reveals a city lit up like a Christmas tree 24 hours a day. Oki says the Government needs to regulate to bring business into line. "Personally, I don't think we have changed a lot on lifestyle yet."

Adam Morton is an Age environment reporter. He travelled to Japan with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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