By Masami Ito, Contributing Writer
As the country’s bushland has burned over the past few months, more than an estimated 10 million hectares have already been reduced to ash. At least 28 people and more than a billion animals are believed to have been killed by the fires as of mid-January.
Support has been pouring in from the international community, including Japan, which dispatched two Air Self-Defense Force planes and personnel to Australia earlier this month.
Around the world, extreme weather triggered by global warming is an increasing fact of life. Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, super typhoons are striking with increased frequency and heat waves have become more deadly. Experts warn that the next 10 years are crucial if the planet is to avoid a climate catastrophe.
Speaking at a news conference in December just before a key United Nations conference on climate change, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “our war against nature must stop.”
“Climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs,” Guterres said. “Drought in some parts of the world is progressing at alarming rates, destroying human habitats and endangering food security. … In short, climate change is no longer a long-term problem. We are confronted now with a global climate crisis.”
The importance of adaptation
Global warming occurs when greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere trap the radiation that is reflected from the Earth’s surface. Carbon dioxide, in particular, began to increase significantly after the Industrial Revolution, which took place between the late 18th century and 19th century.
Average global temperatures are already 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels and, unless the world takes concrete action, average temperatures are on track to rise by an estimated 3 or 4 degrees by the end of the century.
In October 2018, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report that called on the world to keep average global temperatures at no more than 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels, instead of the established 2-degree goal.
Rajib Shaw, a professor at Keio University and one of the lead authors of the report, says the 0.5-degree difference is crucial to many climate-related issues.
Failing to meet the 1.5-degree target, he says, will mean that the number of people exposed to heat waves will more than double from 14 percent to 37 percent of the global population, marine fish stocks will decline by 1.5 million tons and the loss of wildlife species, including vertebrates and plants, will double.
“I believe that the next 10 years will witness extreme levels of climate change and disaster risks,” Shaw says. “Extreme, however, means it usually does not happen and so these risks will no longer be ‘extreme.’ Extreme events will be the new normal.”
The IPCC report also stipulates that the world has until 2030 to cut global emissions of carbon dioxide by about 45 percent from 2010 levels and reach net zero by around 2050 to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees. In December, however, it was revealed that global emissions are still on the rise; 2019’s carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase by 0.6 percent compared to 2018, reaching a record high of 36.8 billion tons.
Sixty-five countries have so far committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Major emitters such as Japan, however, have not.
“Even if countries pledge not to emit carbon dioxide anymore, we cannot change the current situation immediately. It took decades to get to where we are now, so it will take time to change the climate again,” Shaw says. “That’s why mitigation is important, but equally important is adaptation because we have to live with this current state.”
During the U.N. conference in December, Japan joined a list of countries that received the satirical “Fossil of the Day” award by an international environmental organization after failing to commit to stop the nation’s reliance on coal-fired power generation.
Guterres has called on countries to stop building new coal-fired plants from 2020, criticizing the Asia region’s “addiction to coal.”
Japan is the only Group of Seven nation that is still in the process of constructing new plants, although Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi at least admits that he is aware of the issue.
“I am aware of the international criticism toward Japan’s coal policy and I feel that it is getting stronger, especially amid the global trend among financial institutions to withdraw from coal-fired thermal power,” Koizumi told reporters during a news conference in December. “Even though Japan cannot offer a more positive coal policy at the moment, I do want to stress that we recognize the criticism and will continue to make an effort (to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuel).”
While Japan has stopped short of promising net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a few local governments have begun to make decarbonization declarations. As of Jan. 20, 51 municipalities — including Tokyo, Kanagawa, Osaka and Iwate prefectures, as well as cities such as Kyoto, Kagoshima and Ikoma in Nara, have pledged net zero carbon emissions within the next 30 years.
The Environment Ministry estimates that the total population of those municipalities is around 49 million, making up about 39 percent of the country as a whole.
“Zero carbon cities are increasing rapidly throughout Japan,” Koizumi said during the December news conference. “The awakening of local governments should continue, ultimately leading Japan to introduce more renewable energy and become a driving force for the country to realize a decarbonized society.”
Japan is the world’s fifth largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the U.S., India and Russia. The government has pledged to cut emissions by 26 percent from 2013 levels to 1.042 billion tons by 2030.
So far, Japan has succeeded in reducing emissions for five consecutive years to 1.244 billion tons in fiscal 2018, marking the lowest level since fiscal 1990, when the government began collecting data.
The Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015 at a U.N. conference on climate change and has been ratified by 187 countries and territories, including Japan. The accord establishes an international framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 2020, replacing its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol.
In June 2019, Japan submitted a long-term plan on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the U.N. in accordance with the Paris Agreement. In the proposal, the government pledged to create a “decarbonized society” as early as possible in the second half of this century, in addition to its previously set goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
Satoru Morishita, vice minister for global environmental affairs at the Environment Ministry, promises to meet this ambitious goal. “Japan has declared that it will achieve decarbonization after 2050, which means it will cut carbon dioxide emitted — not only from thermal coal, but also from natural gas — to carbon neutral,” Morishita says. “When Japan says it will do something, it will.”
A key area in which the government is focused on is innovation of technology such as carbon capture, utilization and storage, as well as the development of hydrogen energy, which does not produce carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, Japanese corporations, especially those in the financial industry, are also playing a major role in tackling climate change, Morishita says.
In December, the Japan Business Federation unveiled a new initiative called “challenge zero” to promote and support companies taking innovative steps to create a decarbonized society in line with the government’s policy. Participating organizations would either pledge to innovate, install or diffuse net zero carbon technology, or invest in such companies.
“The financial industry is well aware of the looming climate-change crisis,” Morishita says. “If global warming continues and becomes 4 degrees higher than preindustrial levels, too many natural disasters would occur and insurance for damages (from such events) would cease to exist. The sector is very worried about such a scenario.”
Environmental experts such as Itaru Yasui, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, generally agree the world needs to take immediate measures to cut carbon emissions but they also acknowledge the difficulty of achieving this in the wake of the triple core meltdown in Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Since the disaster, public sentiment has turned against nuclear power, making it hard for politicians to promote it as an energy source in spite of its zero carbon emissions. Many of the country’s nuclear power plants remain idle and, instead, lawmakers have turned to coal. Since 2012, Japan has reportedly unveiled plans to build 50 new coal-fired power stations nationwide.
Before the disaster, nuclear energy accounted for about 30 percent of Japan’s overall power supply, and the government had planned to increase this percentage to about half by 2030.
Instead, nuclear energy accounted for just 2 percent of the country’s total supply in 2016, while coal increased from 27 percent in 2010 to 33 percent in 2016, according to data compiled by the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy in 2018.
“It’s important to find a good balance between economic development and environmental protection, but this is actually extremely difficult,” Yasui says. “Japan is stuck between a rock and a hard place because it cannot rely on nuclear energy anymore.”
Japan has declared that it will achieve decarbonization after 2050, which means it will cut carbon dioxide emitted — not only from thermal coal, but also from natural gas — to carbon neutral. When Japan says it will do something, it will.”
Like numerous other countries around the world, Japan has also observed its fair share of extreme weather in recent years.
In 2018, Japan endured a record heat wave that at one point pushed temperatures up to 41.1 degrees Celsius. According to the health ministry, 1,581 people died as a result of heat-related complications that year, more than double the number of heat-related deaths the previous year.
Torrential rain also struck western Japan the same summer, resulting in 237 deaths as a consequence of floods and landslides.
Two devastating typhoons — Faxai and Hagibis — also tore through Japan last fall. Typhoon Faxai struck the Kanto region in September, cutting power to 934,900 homes. A month later, Typhoon Hagibis tore through the same region, damaging more than 90,000 homes and killing 99 people. Three people are still missing as of Jan. 10.
According to Yasui, when the sea surface temperature rises above 26.5 degrees Celsius, the resulting water vapor helps form and subsequently “energize” typhoons. When Typhoon Faxai reached Tokyo Bay, the local sea surface temperature was more than 27 degrees Celsius, he says.
“There is something wrong with the state of the world today and typhoons will only get worse,” Yasui says.
From the state of the weather to agriculture and fisheries, climate change is affecting people’s lives. According to the Environment Ministry, rising temperatures and increasing rainfall have resulted in immature rice grains as well as mandarin oranges whose skin and fruit separated, negatively affecting their quality. Tiger mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever were once found in the Kanto region but they have since been detected much farther north as temperatures have risen across the country. And as we’ve known for many years, the ocean’s coral is dying off due to rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification.
In June 2018, Japan passed the Climate Change Adaptation Law, which stipulates that a plan must be drafted to promote measures to adapt to the negative impact of global warming.
“We need to look to the future — 10, 20 years ahead — and continue to adapt to changes as well,” Morishita says. “The same goes for disaster prevention. Instead of looking back at the past, we need to predict what will happen in the next 50 years and establish both hard and soft infrastructure. It would be as significant as the Copernican Revolution.”
Sustainable development goals
From plastic waste and gender inequality to poverty and global conflict, climate change is just one of a number of pressing issues the world currently faces. To overcome these challenges, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) in September 2015.
According to this initiative, both developing and developed nations have until 2030 — another 10 years — to achieve the 17 goals, which include such things as good health, quality education, protection of biodiversity in the ocean and on land, gender equality and climate action. The initiative replaces its predecessor, the millennium development goals that ended in 2015 and focused more on issues developing nations faced such as poverty and child mortality.
“The SDGs are not just about social and economic problems. There is the added risk of climate change,” Shaw says. “Be it direct or not, climate change affects all of the 17 SDGs.”
Many young people, led by environmental Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, have also begun to take a stand against the climate crisis across the globe.
In August 2018, at the age of 15, Thunberg staged a solo protest in front of the Swedish parliament to demand the government to take action against climate change. Her protest has since sparked a global movement, as young people join her protest as part of Fridays for Future and the Global Climate Strike, which have attracted millions of participants. The movement has gained attention in Japan as well but the number of participants is still low compared to other nations.
Yasui, who is also president of the Institute for Promoting Sustainable Societies, urges more Japanese youth to demand action against climate change. Otherwise, he says, the world is almost certainly going to be in worse shape when Thunberg’s generation turns 50.
“Humans are a truly dangerous species. We are alive because of the Earth and, if something happens to it, we won’t be able to survive,” Yasui says. “The Earth doesn’t exist for our convenience. If we act selfishly, it will break down.”
As we enter a new decade, we believe it’s important to tackle an issue that represents one of the biggest challenges Japan faces over the next 10 years — the climate crisis. To this end, this is the final installment of a four-part series that examines the impact of the crisis on Japan. The first installment on the impact of declaring a climate emergency can be found at jtimes.jp/iki. The second installment on Tokyo’s plastic problem can be found at jtimes.jp/plastic. The third installment on Fukushima’s renewable energy drive can be found at jtimes.jp/renewables.