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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Dealing with climate change


This year marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, and the 20th anniversary of the publication "Our Common Future," by the United Nations Brundtland Commission, the landmark report that called for "sustainable development" -- meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

One example that public consciousness of the perils of global warming is growing is the fact that the film documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," featuring former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, has become a blockbuster.

On Feb. 2, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its fourth assessment report, blaming global warming on rising levels of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

The report means that the world's scientists concur that the so-called greenhouse effect is an "inconvenient truth" caused by CO2emissions. Some countries have been reluctant to cut their CO2 emissions on the grounds that there was insufficient scientific information on the cause of global warming.

In the past several years, unusually violent weather events have devastated the world. In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina blasted the U.S. Gulf Coast, leading to thousands of deaths in New Orleans, a city that was unprotected against such a disaster.

In July 2006, torrential rains hit Shimane Prefecture, flooding 170 homes above floor level and some 1,000 others under the floor. Except during typhoons, it had previously been unheard of for rivers in urban areas to overflow due to heavy rains in July. Prefectural authorities now plan to spend 850 million yen to prevent a recurrence of such flooding.

Climate change creates winners and losers among industries. Warm weather from late last year to early this year reduced household and industrial demand for city gas and for electricity, but demand for electricity will increase during a hot summer because of air conditioning use. On balance so far, it appears that climate change from global warming will have little effect on power demand.

Among the losers are ski resorts experiencing less snowfall. On the other hand, crowds of tourists visited Kyoto over the Feb. 10-12 holiday. Most hotels and taxis enjoyed a brisk business.

Throughout the year, higher temperatures will stunt the growth of rice plants and cause blight problems. Higher temperatures in summer and autumn are likely to slow the growth of tomatoes, green peppers, cabbages and other vegetables, making them more susceptible to rot. Some areas will become unsuitable for apple and tangerine production, but in land-short Japan, it will be difficult to move this production further north.

Pigs and chickens have diminished appetites during hot summers so they could be less productive. Due to rising seawater temperatures, fishing grounds for saury, sardines, mackerel, saurel and others are likely to move northward and their catches are expected to decrease.

Global warming and climate change are inevitable since CO2 emissions from those industrial countries (excluding Australia and the United States) required to cut their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol account for only 30 percent of total emissions worldwide. Thus it is imperative that not only "mitigative measures" to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions but also "adaptive measures" to avert the adverse effects of climate changes be implemented as soon as possible. Adaptive measures -- technical or socioeconomic -- include:

Creating financial measures such as climate derivatives and damage insurance to hedge risk or loss from climate change. For example, if the summer is hotter than normal, an electric power company will enjoy higher revenues while a gas company posts lower revenues. If the summer is cool, the power company will receive lower revenues while the gas company's revenues are higher.

Since weather is hard to predict, the power and gas companies could agree on ways to protect themselves from fluctuations in revenues. If the summer is hot, the power company might transfer a certain percentage of its sales to the gas company. If the summer is cool, the gas company might shift a share of its sales to the power company.

Establishing a special international fund to offer financial aid to developing countries facing crises from climate change. An international environment tax could finance the fund. Or, industrial countries might maintain the fund by contributing a certain percentage of the carbon credits they acquire under the Clean Development Mechanism. (Under CDM, if industrial countries invest in greenhouse-gas reduction projects in developing countries, they receive carbon credits in addition to the amount of CO2 reduced in industrial countries.) The latter proposal seems more feasible.

Installing flood-control facilities in urban-area rivers and canals. Since existing technologies can be used for this purpose, local authorities must strive to convince the public of the usefulness of adaptive measures funded by tax money, taking into consideration their cost-effectiveness.

Setting up an international aid system to deal with food and water shortages so that areas with plentiful water can supply areas that are short.

Despite the message to give more attention to adaptive measures than to mitigative measures, it is the thorough implementation of mitigative measures that is the most important countermeasure against climate change.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.


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