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Monday, April 7, 2008

Starving the emissions beast

The focus of the debate on climate change has shifted drastically in the past several years. The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 on the assumption that climate change and global warming were being caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Many scientists challenged this assumption, however, saying it was not fully substantiated. American experts in particular argued that early action was not needed. They favored "delayed actions" 20 to 30 years down the road. They based their position on the prevailing concentration of atmospheric CO2 at the time — only 360 parts per million, compared with the estimated danger level beginning at 550 ppm.

On March 24, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush announced his decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. He said the protocol was based on a short-term perspective, would prevent the development of large-scale technologies, and would negatively impact medium- to long-term strategies to fight global warming.

The large-scale technologies he was referring to includes the CO2 capture and storage system (CCS), electric power generation utilizing cosmic and solar rays, nuclear fusion, next-generation nuclear reactors, extraction of hydrogen from fossil fuels, fuel cells, and quick-charging lithium batteries.

Changes to socio-economic systems — as have been adopted by European Union states — are indispensable for short-term reduction of greenhouse gases. Among them are economic measures such as an environment tax and an emission-credit trading system, surcharges to discourage automobiles from entering city centers, expansion and improvement of public transport, and tax reduction for automobiles with improved fuel economy.

The Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) has continued to oppose an environment tax and emission-credit trading for fear that economic measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will slow economic growth. It doesn't believe that either environment taxes or an emission-credit trading system — based on the allocation of emission ceilings to various industrial segments — will be effective in reaching emission-reduction targets. It says voluntary actions by individual corporations will suffice.

My rebuttal to these reasons:

(1) Environmental protection and economic growth are compatible with each other as long as tax revenues are used properly. For example, why not cut income taxes to offset revenue from environment taxes, adopt a fixed-price system to encourage solar power generation, and slash taxes on automobiles with improved fuel mileage.

(2) Although the environment tax may not be an effective way to reduce CO2 emissions in the short run, it will lead to a sharp reduction later on as old equipment is replaced and new technologies are developed.

(3) Emission-credit trading could be quite effective if implemented by auction rather than by allocation.

(4) Voluntary action to reduce missions per unit would not be compatible with the Kyoto Protocol's goal of reducing total emissions.

The year 2007 marked the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the 20th anniversary of the "Our Common Future" report by the World Commission on Environment and Development — which officially used the phrase "sustainable development" for the first time — and the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the Framework Convention on Climate Change by the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development.

In a speech titled "Invitation to Cool Earth 50," delivered before the "Future of Asia" symposium last May 24, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed halving the world's greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. He emphasized developing innovative technologies to create a "low carbon society," and called for a "mechanism" to provide funds to developing countries as well as a nationwide campaign to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 1 kilogram per day per person.

The 50 percent global emissions reduction target means gradually reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by balancing CO2 emissions with their absorption by forests and oceans. This is not impossible. For example, global emissions could be cut by 30 percent through leading-edge CCS technology, which would make coal-burning thermal power stations emission free.

One big problem, though, is how to secure the necessary funds to shape Abe's "mechanism" for developing countries.

The British Parliament has already passed the Climate Security Act, which calls for a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 and sets forth concrete means of attaining that goal.

In the United States, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has approved the Lieberman-Warner Act, which targets a 63 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emission volume by 2050.

These events show that the global focus has shifted from short-term actions to long-term attainable emission reductions or a low carbon society.

Take the transport sector as an example. It is estimated that drilling for oil can continue for only another 41 years. By 2050, petroleum resources may not have been depleted, but prices will have gone up to the extent that we'll likely see oil being put to "noble use" only, such as for the petrochemical industry. Automobiles will no longer be powered by gasoline or diesel fuels; airplanes will be flying on hydrogen fuels; and ships will be powered either by biofuels or by heavy oil left over from refining petroleum.

Energy sources for automobiles will have to be found in electricity or fuel cells; the hydrogen needed for fuel cells will be mass-produced from water through electrolytic processes.

CO2 emissions from electric power generation will be reduced to almost nothing through the use of coal-burning stations equipped with the CCS system, renewable energy and nuclear power.

Some time ago, University of New Hampshire professor Dennis Meadows asserted that the exhaustion of resources would bring about limits to growth. Instead, we find ourselves in the unexpected situation in which the exhaustion of oil resources will bring about a sharp reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.

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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