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Japan lagging behind other low-carbon societies

The Yomiuri Shimbun

From left, Hiroshi Ota, Kaori Miyake and Takejiro Sueyoshi

The Yomiuri ShimbunJapan’s stature among nations seeking a carbon-free society is shrinking. A panel of experts at the Foreign Ministry proposed in April that climate change issues be made the linchpin of diplomacy, with an eye toward the 24th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) in December, which will determine the detailed rules of the Paris Agreement, and the summit meeting of the Group of 20 major economies that Japan will host in June next year. As a nation that has described itself as an environmentally advanced country, can Japan assume leadership on the global stage? We spoke to three experts regarding economic and diplomatic aspects of the issue.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 24, 2018)

Price to pay for indecision on renewable energy

The world is making substantive progress toward a carbon-free society. The long-term direction was determined by the Paris Agreement. Its centerpiece is the promotion of renewable energy. Japan is lagging behind this global trend.

The trend toward carbon-free is expanding rapidly not only in the proliferation of wind and solar power, but also in the field of mobility. While there are social infrastructure challenges such as improving battery capacity, reducing costs and installing rapid charging stations, Britain and France have set forth plans to ban the sale of gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles in 2040, and China is also aiming to become the world leader in electric vehicles.

Amid these circumstances, Europe and China are drawing closer together. For China, the United States is a major trading partner, but the trade tensions with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump have worsened, and even under the preceding administration of President Barack Obama there was friction surrounding issues such as the one over the South China Sea. China has no such conflict with Europe, allowing for a stable relationship. China is an attractive market for Europe as well, with the European automotive industry able to introduce technologies it has cultivated there. It is a win-win relationship for both sides.

Europe is likely to continue playing a leading role in climate change diplomacy going forward. The European Union faces problems such as Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and immigration issues, so no one can say with absolute certainty that everyone will fall in line. Nevertheless, in the realm of climate change, it has consistently demonstrated leadership since the advent of the Kyoto Protocol. The region has a market of 500 million people, and the influence of EU environmental standards extends beyond its borders.

In the United States, Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. If the federal government fails to set targets for reducing greenhouse gases, it will not be of much help. However, there is a rising movement by states, companies and individuals who are positive about global warming measures, and it is growing into a massive wave. The state of California, with its enormous economy, is among them, and it is backing EVs by introducing incentives such as granting permission to use priority lanes.

What about Japan? The midterm target to reduce emissions by 26 percent from fiscal 2013 levels by fiscal 2030 is low from an international perspective. One might say we are paying the price for lacking the motivation to popularize renewable energy and for relying on fossil fuels and nuclear power. There is also the matter of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant accident. An unmistakable gap has widened with Germany, which once had a similar energy mix to Japan. It would be fair to say that Japan is already a lap or two behind.

After steadily implementing its own targets, Japan must engage actively in climate change diplomacy. It must leverage the experience and technology, that has supported the sustainable development of emerging and developing nations, to make a contribution to the international community.

 

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Futoshi Mori.

■ Hiroshi Ota / Waseda University Professor

Completed a doctorate course in political science at the Columbia University Graduate School in the United States. He is a specialist in global environmental politics and international relations theory. His books include “Shuyokoku no Kankyo to Enerugi o Meguru Hikaku Seiji” (Comparative politics concerning the environmental and energy policies of major countries) published by Toshindo in 2016. He is 64.

Businesses changing course to avoid financial collapse

With the Paris Agreement, the world is on the verge of major change. The business world is leading the way.

At an international conference on the theme of climate change mitigation called by French President Emmanuel Macron last December, the World Bank declared that it would, in principle, no longer finance the development of oil and gas fields from 2019 onward. The World Bank, the top organization in the world of global finance, adopted a stance opposed to financing not only coal, but also oil and natural gas. This was a powerful message in support of the global trend to work toward a carbon-free society.

At the same conference, major French insurance firm AXA announced that it would cease providing insurance services for coal and oil sands — sandstone containing highly viscous oil. Just as getting fire and earthquake insurance coverage is essential for us when we build a home, in the business world, no project can go ahead if it cannot utilize damage insurance. No doubt this was an extremely shocking announcement for the industries concerned.

Behind the financial world’s major change of course toward a carbon-free society is the strong fear that the foundations of its business have begun to crumble due to climate change.

The total worldwide damage caused by weather disasters such as major hurricanes and flooding was ¥34 trillion last year, and the associated insurance payouts reached ¥14 trillion. If the damage continues to grow, there is the risk that insurance payments will balloon, making the damage insurance business itself unprofitable.

Total confirmed fossil fuel reserves worldwide stand at roughly 2.8 trillion tons, but if we intend to abide by the Paris Agreement, it is estimated that we will be unable to use nearly 80 percent, or 2.2 trillion tons. If financial institutions carry on funding fossil fuel extraction and are unable to recoup their investments, the global financial system itself might collapse.

Some within Japanese industries still consider climate change measures to be a “burden” and are inclined to avoid them as a as possible. Perhaps this is because some sense remains in the industries that the Kyoto Protocol, which preceded the Paris Agreement, imposed on them strict reduction targets. But it will not do to misread the global trend.

In the recommendation to the Foreign Ministry which I compiled as chairman [of an expert panel], we called upon it to make environmental issues the linchpin of Japanese diplomacy and lead the international debate. The G-20 summit next year will be the perfect chance to make Japan’s presence in climate change diplomacy felt. With its high level of technological ability in the environmental sphere, Japan must assert its position as a leader in international climate change measures.

 

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Jun Sato.

■ Takejiro Sueyoshi / Special Adviser to UNEP Finance Initiative

Joined Mitsubishi Bank (currently MUFG Bank) in 1967. Assumed his current post in 2003 after serving as a managing executive officer and head of the New York branch. He serves as CEO of the Green Finance Organization. He is 73.

Emissions reduction also a difficult task for companies

We have entered an age in which companies that do not address environmental issues such as climate change are not well regarded among institutional investors. International NGOs jointly operated by institutional investors request annual disclosures on measures against global warming from major companies, and the evaluation criteria grow stricter by the year.

In March, we at Aeon Co. announced our goal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions at all of our stores, both in Japan and abroad, by 2050. We also joined RE100, an alliance of companies seeking to meet all of their electricity needs through renewable energy.

There are 131 members worldwide, including U.S. retail giant Walmart Inc., but Aeon is only the sixth Japanese company to join the initiative. Both eliminating emissions and using 100 percent renewable energy are likely not achievable through ordinary efforts, but we resolved to make the attempt based on the belief that our company will be unable to survive if we cannot realize this goal.

Consumer attitudes have also changed. Charging for plastic bags has solidified the custom of bringing your own bags, and a growing number of consumers are choosing environmentally friendly products. When I proposed the carbon-free plan at an internal managerial conference, there were some among the management ranks who greeted it with skepticism, wondering if it could actually be done, but if we are passed over by investors and consumers, our business situation will become untenable.

Looking at it from a global perspective, the efforts of Japanese business still have a way to go, and I get the sense that there is a lack of enthusiasm compared to other countries. When I visited COP23 in Germany last year, I was frequently asked, “Japan has such incredible technological ability and first-rate talent, but why do you not use it for international climate change measures?” Japan is unaware of its standing on the world stage.

Even in the United States, where the Trump administration declared it is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, a movement is growing to abide by international agreements without the government. States and companies passionate about preventing climate change formed a confederation called “We Are Still In,” and they advocated pushing ahead with prevention measures at COP23 as well.

Even if one aims to eliminate emissions, there are only a few companies in Japan that produce renewable energy, and there is uncertainty about whether it is possible to secure the necessary energy. From the next fiscal year, we will start a renewable energy procurement business through an affiliate company. Regional communities have untapped potential to further expand solar and wind power generation. We wish to promote procurement in regional communities actively as well.

Companies like us intend to put pressure on the Japanese government to intensify climate change diplomacy, but we do not believe our hands are tied unless the government creates a framework. Not only will Aeon work to reduce emissions from its own stores, we also intend to call for cooperation from our product suppliers and others.

 

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Keiichi Nakane.

■ Kaori Miyake / Executive Officer of Aeon Co.

Joined Jusco (currently Aeon Co.) in 1991. After serving as president of Aeon affiliate Claire’s Nippon and other posts, she was appointed Aeon’s executive officer for corporate social responsibility and communication in 2017. She is 49.

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