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Monday, Sept. 27, 2004

Global weather warnings


Weather in Japan this year has shown unusual patterns. In fact, what has happened in various parts of the country defies our common knowledge. Take typhoons. Aside from a record number that hit this summer, one of them -- No. 18, or Songda -- continued unabated. After landing Kyushu, it traveled northeast over the Sea of Japan and struck Hokkaido, where it mowed down trees along the streets in Sapporo. Normally, such a typhoon would have degraded to a low-pressure cyclone before reaching Hokkaido. Another exception was a typhoon in June that took almost the same course as the outsize Muroto Typhoon of September 1934.

The heat wave in Japan was also abnormal, suggesting that the hot season here may be approaching a subtropical zone climate. Plus there was the unusual phenomenon of torrential rains that caused flooding across the country.

Odd signs of climate change have also occurred in much of the rest of the world. In the United States, hurricanes wreaked havoc in parts of the southeastern region. In China, torrential rains ravaged areas along the Yangtze River.

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and in March 1995, following its coming into effect with ratification by most of its signatories, the first Conference of the Parties, or COP1, was held in Berlin. At the COP3 in Kyoto two years later, the Kyoto Protocol was signed. This treaty committed the industrialized nations to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, two types of Freon, and sulfur hexafluoride) by at least 5 percent (calculated in carbon dioxide equivalents) below 1990 levels within the five years from 2008 to 2012.

On March 28, 1993, U.S. President George W. Bush surprised the world by declaring that the United States would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in November's presidential election, has said, however, that, if elected, he will bring the U.S. back to the negotiating table.

The Kyoto Protocol will come into effect if emissions from ratifying nations exceed 55 percent of total emissions from the industrialized nations. This means that if Russia ratifies it, the treaty will become effective without the U.S.

One reason for Russia's delay in ratification is that its estimated foreign-exchange earnings in the international market for emissions rights -- where nations failing to reduce their emissions as required can buy "credits" from those exceeding their reduction targets -- have been drastically reduced because of the American withdrawal. The European Union is trying to help make up the loss by supporting Russia's entry to the World Trade Organization.

Not only this, but many Russians regard global warming as beneficial to Russia since the country is situated across cold climatic zones. The frequent occurrence of forest fires there, however, originating with methane gas from melting permafrost, indicates that global warming is negatively affecting Russia as well. In fact, from January to August 2003, areas of forests equal to 60 percent of the total area of Japan were reportedly destroyed by fires.

Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are partly responsible for global warming and climate change. At present, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 average 380 ppm (before the Industrial Revolution they were stabilized at 280 ppm). It has been generally believed that climate change occurs at or above 550 ppm. The actual threshold, however, appears to be lower than this.

Reducing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is the only way to prevent more frequent climate changes. And the only way to reduce CO2 concentrations is to cut CO2 emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Everyone probably agrees up to this point. Opinion is widely split, though, on how to cut emissions.

Private industry is dead set against the carbon tax (tax against global warming). Prospects for its introduction are grim indeed. The carbon tax will spur technological innovations in such areas as fuel-efficient cars, fuel cells and electricity-saving air conditioners, creating new fields of competition that will divide companies into winners and losers.

The general feeling in Japanese industrial circles is that individual companies should be allowed to make efforts voluntarily. In my opinion, this seems to betray the Japanese people's innate aversion to competition. In a free-enterprise economy, regulatory measures to prohibit or require specific actions should be kept to the necessary minimum. What a wise government should do to prevent global warming is take measures that motivate companies and consumers to act in ways that minimize energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

It is hard to tell whether Russia will ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the near future. Even if ratification is further delayed, recent climate changes must have convinced many more people of the urgent need to trim CO2 emissions. A good number of experts have argued that early action is not necessary -- in other words, that delayed action is warranted because CO2 concentrations will rise only slightly above 400 ppm even if current conditions are maintained for 20 or 30 years. This argument, based as it is on the CO2 threshold of 550 ppm, seems to be rapidly losing its validity.

Takamitsu Sawa, professor of economics at Kyoto University, is also the director of the university's Institute of Economic Research.


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