- The Journal
An Atmosphere of Concern
Over the next 20 years, China alone will add 350 million urban residents to its population – more people than live in the United States – and will build the equivalent of ten New York Cities worth of skyscrapers
Telling developing countries they need to reduce their GHG emissions often leads to prolonged debate and scant progress, but making it so policymakers and other stakeholders feel they can benefit from such action can ideally lead to win-win outcomes.
The decisions made today will influence domestic energy and environmental policy for decades to come. This in turn will help steer the decisions of tomorrow made by developing countries such as China, where the stakes – just like the buildings – are higher and faster growing.
An Atmosphere of Concern
My Summer as an Intern in the Climate Change Group
BY ARI PHILLIPS
Photograph by Ken Rodgers
By the time I complete my ten-week internship Asia will have nearly one million new urban residents. Many of these urbanites will move into freshly constructed, high-energy consuming buildings that help make up a building sector accountable for one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Over the next 20 years, China alone will add 350 million urban residents to its population – more people than live in the United States – and will build the equivalent of ten New York Cities worth of skyscrapers. And greenhouse gas emissions, which are the main cause of climate change, will continue to gather at greater frequency up above the skyline.
This atmosphere of concern weighs heavily on the researchers in the Climate Change Group at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), where I’m living and working this summer. Located in the small town of Hamaya about an hour south of Tokyo, we spend our days in this glass-paned, spaceship-like building trying to reconcile the facts of rapid development in Asia with those of gradual climate change around the globe. We sit in our cubicles drinking milk tea and noshing on whatever treats have been most recently provided by a colleague returned from a business trip, and we ponder how the world can brave these 21st century challenges. We contemplate the nearly 200 cities with one million-plus people in China, we consider the heated atmosphere these and other GHGs will create, and then – once we’ve settled down – we get to work; keeping in mind the last bus at 10:48 p.m. lest we miss it again and are forced to take a taxi into town or spend the night at the institute.
I’ve been given the opportunity to work for a summer at IGES because of an email that circulated through my graduate school program at the University of Texas notifying students of an internship position. My supervisor here, Dr. Zusman (a.k.a Eric-san), also graduated from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, and thankfully for me, he’s managed to stay in touch with a few people at the school.
At IGES one of Dr. Zusman’s main projects involves working on the co-benefits of climate change mitigation. More-or-less, this entails merging development with GHG emissions reductions. For instance, if you build a subway system in place of a highway not only will you reduce GHG emissions, but you will also limit local air pollution and reduce congestion, which would be considered co-benefits. One of the important things about co-benefits is that they can entice governments in developing countries to pursue environmentally friendly policies they otherwise wouldn’t have. Telling developing countries they need to reduce their GHG emissions often leads to prolonged debate and scant progress, but making it so policymakers and other stakeholders feel they can benefit from such action can ideally lead to win-win outcomes. Development – economic or otherwise – is generally viewed as a positive indicator, and nary a local policymaker wants to indicate otherwise by slowing local growth for global health. Consideration of co-benefits offers one way of merging the global issue of climate change with local developmental issues.
This may not sound groundbreaking, but it’s rare that policymakers pursue policies with more than one target, or benefit. It’s politically easier to set a single goal to achieve: use this much energy; build this many train lines; reduce this percent of emissions. It’s also easier to analyze the impact of a single-targeted policy rather than one with multiple variables. Co-benefits themselves are often difficult to quantify, so generating measurable and verifiable data can be frustrating and in many cases presents a formidable obstacle to progress. Without reliable results demonstrating the effectiveness of a co-benefit, policymakers will be wary of taking it on.
Aside from pursing single-target policies, policymakers also have the option of avoiding tough-to-meet targets altogether, opting instead for easy actions with big payoffs – “low-hanging fruits” – or simply remaining below the radar, content to be a bureaucrat sitting in a leather chair. So getting co-benefits into a policymaker’s agenda and from there into government-endorsed policies and measures is a formidable pursuit. And once that’s done the policies still need implementing, the private sector enforcing, and the public awareness raising.
Just like other East Asian countries, Japan imports most of its energy resources – coal and oil primarily. In a fast-growing and even faster consuming world, this implies a lack of energy security. Japan had a plan for this that included increasing nuclear power production from 30 percent of electricity supply to 50 percent of electricity supply over the next 30 years. That plan, as they say, is gone with the radioactive wind.
I didn’t fully realize the political and cultural impact of the nuclear disaster until I arrived in Japan and experienced firsthand the resounding public opinion to shelve nuclear power. I thought maybe this radioactive incident could be isolated and overcome through increased safety measures and technological advances. But when the contamination is just a few hours away; when you vaguely consider it before eating fresh fish or going out in the rain; when you mull over all the other nuclear power plants nearby and all the other potential disasters waiting to happen at God’s will – or the will of a giant catfish, which many Japanese used to believe caused earthquakes – then you start to draw different conclusions.
Now that the recovery is underway and the Fukushima Dai-ichi Power Plant appears to have been subdued, the debate in the Japanese Diet, or Parliament, is over the nation’s energy plan going forward. As most people know, or probably presume, Japan is a leader in energy efficiency and climate change mitigation, with government-funded institutions such as IGES doing much of the legwork. The Kyoto Protocol came into being here (and it will die somewhere else). Japanese GHGs per capita are far below many other developed countries. There’s like 12 different kinds of recycling. Eco-cities are abundant. The train system is amazing. Litter is nonexistent. There’s a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.
Or at least for now there is. The recent devastation presents a significant setback to this goal [the shutdown of Japan’s nuclear power plants has brought conventional oil and coal-fired plants back online], and many people want to scale back that commitment and focus instead on recovery and economic growth. But other people see a unique opportunity to redefine energy policy in Japan, and to recast the energy model for generations to come. To aide policymakers in their decision-making, researchers at IGES are vigorously generating Japanese energy mix scenarios spanning the next 40 years. This information must then be translated into results, and policymakers will have to navigate the consensus-based Japanese political system in search of an agreeable solution. Just as China finds itself stuck between a skyscraper and a hard-to-live place as bureaucrats try to balance rapid near-term growth and long-term sustainability, in Japan local development and recovery issues must be weighed against national and international longevity concerns.
With climate change, the balancing act is between the local and the global. In Texas the same dynamic is playing out as officials attempt to deal with an unprecedented drought and the hottest summer on record: local effects from global causes. Who should pay for what and who’s responsible for what? In Texas we’ve chosen to ignore the important questions and deal with the problem by praying for rain, at the governor’s sage suggestion. In Japan when they hear I’m from Texas they say, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” And I say, “Yeah, yeah it is.”
There’s no easy route out of the energy fix in Japan, let alone the global crisis of climate change. A solution requires innovation and collaboration from all parties. At IGES researchers are working feverishly to address these challenges domestically. Senses are elevated as onlookers await the course of action Japan will pursue as it emerges from this tumultuous period. The decisions made today will influence domestic energy and environmental policy for decades to come. This in turn will help steer the decisions of tomorrow made by developing countries such as China, where the stakes – just like the buildings – are higher and faster growing. If Japan puts renewable energy reform on the fast track – on the bullet train so to speak – then China might feel more inclined to emulate, just as they have with bullet trains (and there will surely still be accidents along the way). The technological advances and pre-tested policies certainly won’t deter countries like China from embracing environmentally-friendly policies when making these important decisions.
It’s stiflingly hot in IGES today. Just like the rest of the Tokyo metropolitan area, we’ve cut back on energy use. In real terms, this means that once or twice a week my zone of the semi-circle cubicle array goes without air conditioning. Today is one of those days. It’s windy outside though, and I can easily imagine the pleasant breeze cutting across my face and evaporating slow rolling beads of sweat just before they plunge onto my keyboard. But no breeze can I feel, because the windows in the workspace don’t open.
Throughout the day we find places to gather and commiserate about the situation. Japanese, Indians, Chinese, Americans all convening to vent about the unfortunate design of the building’s windows and the disarming heat. Then I’m back at my desk, lamenting the poor infrastructural decisions being made across China and the inevitability of rising temperatures across the globe.
And I am once again reminded that in the world we live in, the global is the local is the global. It’s all one big atmosphere of concern.
Ari Phillips is a dual-degree master’s student in global policy studies and journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written for the n+1 Magazine, the Texas Observer, Willamette Week, and other publications. His focus is on environmental and political reporting.