Global environmental problems know no national borders. Efforts by many nations to solve them can be easily gummed up by a small number of countries refusing to join in.
In their recent meeting in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, energy and environment ministers of the Group of 20 countries reached an agreement that represents a step forward in international efforts to deal with the increasingly serious problem of plastic pollution of oceans.
But their failure to make any notable progress on climate change during their two-day meeting at the famous summer resort underscored the difficulty of engineering global cooperation to tackle borderless environmental challenges.
The G-20 ministers agreed to set up an international framework to report and share measures to reduce marine plastic waste, the first of its kind.
Under the new program, member countries will periodically report their measures to decrease the volume of marine plastic waste, including recycling and collection, and share information on those efforts.
Few countries have disputed the need to establish a system for international cooperation to deal with the problem. The hard part will be building a global consensus on specific and effective measures, such as setting binding numeral targets for reducing plastic consumption or introducing regulations to restrict single-use plastic products.
The situation concerning the issue differs widely from country to country. Some industrial nations, including European countries and Canada, are seeking to impose a total ban on single-use plastics, while many developing countries do not have sufficient capacity to dispose of plastic waste.
The agreement reached in Karuizawa should serve as a first step toward broad and effective international cooperation for fixing the problem of the mounting volume of plastic in the seas.
What is worrisome about the outcome of the Karuizawa meeting is a lack of agreement on climate change issues due to a sharp rift between countries.
While the Paris climate agreement is set to take effect in 2020, the G-20 officials failed even to agree to step up international efforts to achieve the goals set by the accord, negotiated in 2016.
The main obstacle to an agreement on the Paris climate pact was wide disagreements between Europe, which aims to sharply reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and the United States, which has pulled out of the deal. The differences between them proved too wide to be ironed out.
As the participants tried to avoid isolating the United States, their joint statement only stated that countries participating in the Paris Agreement reconfirmed their commitment to fully implementing agreed-upon measures.
Japan, which presided over the conference, apparently decided to put a priority on preventing conflict over climate issues from torpedoing agreements on other issues, especially the urgent problem of plastic pollution of oceans.
To avoid a backlash from the United States, Tokyo opted to focus on the less intractable challenge of working out an agreement on plastics.
But global warming is also a problem crying out for swift and concerted actions by nations.
Even if all countries achieve their respective goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures will rise 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century from levels before the Industrial Revolution.
To achieve the Paris Agreement target of limiting the rise to 1.5 degrees or less, nations will have to raise their individual targets much higher.
The United States, the second-largest emitter of heat-trapping gases after China, is highly responsible for the health of the planet. If this leading polluter thumbs its nose at international cooperation for tackling this environmental challenge, the effectiveness of measures being taken under the Paris accord will be seriously undermined.
If other countries follow the steps of Washington out of the deal, the landmark climate agreement could collapse. U.S. President Donald Trump should act on deep awareness of the responsibility of the United States as a superpower.
Japan will also host this year’s G-20 summit, to be held in late June in Osaka.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will chair the meeting, should make a meaningful contribution to help nations overcome their disagreements to attain real international cooperation on key global environmental issues instead of simply settling for a superficial success of the conference.