March 22, 2011


2010 Talk Show: Seeking a Better Future, Rather Than Despair -- Part 2

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.102 (February 2011)

On December 31, 2010, an interesting talk show took place in Tokyo. Following Part 1 presented last month, this issue of the JFS newsletter presents more excerpts from the show.

Speakers: Reiji Yamada, comic artist of "Coconuts Period," "Zetsubo ni Kiku Kusuri (Medicine for Despair)," etc.
Seita Emori, chief of the Climate Risk Assessment Research Section at the Center for Global Environmental Research of the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) Yu Tanaka, executive director of the Mirai Bank (a non-profit organization; "Mirai" means future)
Junko Edahiro, environmental journalist and chief executive of Japan for Sustainability


EDAHIRO: I sometimes feel that there are differences in the basic stance defining Eastern and Western perspectives on how to deal with global warming, though I am not sure if that is the best way to express what I mean.

Global warming is progressing because the amount of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions exceeds the capacity of the earth to absorb CO2 into forests, soil, and oceans. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fourth Assessment Report, the amount of CO2 emissions that can be absorbed by the earth is said to be 3.1 billion tons (or 3.1 billion tons of carbon) annually, while the amount of CO2 emitted by human activities has reached 7.2 billion tons (or 7.2 billion tons of carbon) and the volume of emissions continues to increase.

In short, the balance between the earth's carrying capacity and human-related impacts on the earth has gone wrong. Global warming is accelerating because CO2 is being emitted beyond the earth's capacity to absorb it. The world's forests are decreasing because trees are being cut down faster than they can grow back. Biodiversity has declined because humans are causing the extinction of species faster than nature can generate new species -- I have heard that it takes nature a million years to evolve a new species.

In this situation, we Japanese living in the Orient naturally feel that we need to go back to the point where the earth can sustain itself by reducing the impact of human activities, right? On the other hand, some people in Western world do not think that way. They think that we need to increase the carrying capacity of the earth instead. If the present earth cannot absorb CO2 enough to sustain our current lifestyle, we should manipulate the earth to make it absorb more -- saying in essence that we humans can do anything we want, that there is no need to put on the brakes.

Experiments on carbon capture and storage technology (CCS), which attempt to capture CO2 from the air and inject it underground, have begun in Japan. Such technology attempts to increase the absorption capacity of the earth artificially. It could stop the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2, and the people who would like to impose this technology are asserting that they can then build more thermal power plants.

Looking at this idea on a larger scale, concepts and studies have been developed that aim to alter the earth itself; this trend developed into the field of geoengineering. Although this field is not well-known in Japan, geoengineering studies are being advanced in the United States and Europe. Examples include opening a huge umbrella between the sun and the earth to reflect sunlight and blasting aerosols in the atmosphere to cool down the earth.

EMORI: Researchers started to discuss this topic actively starting in 2009-2010. Orientals have reverence for nature and have not even considered such a thing, but I agree with Edahiro-san that Occidentals might be more inclined to think up this type of approach. It strikes me now that this kind of discussion could be a reflection of the increased number of scientists who are seriously concerned about the threshold of global atmospheric temperature rise. Jim Hansen (of NASA) is seriously worried that a 1.5 degree Celsius (C) increase in global temperatures could lead to the collapse of ice sheets in Antarctica and a sudden rise in sea level equal to what might be expected over a 10-year period. "Maybe" in this context does not mean we do not have to worry. Many scientists take a serious view because "maybe" what we are looking at are disastrous events in the future.

With additional warming of merely 0.7 to 0.8 degrees C, the global temperature will rise by 1.5 degrees C. At this point we would eventually start to realize, "We have no time left to curb the temperature rise just by reducing CO2 emissions." That's why scientists are embarking on feasibility studies to see what could happen once geoengineering methods are deployed as emergency measures to stop global warming.

TANAKA: Sounds like an emergency parachute.

EMORI: Exactly. In the name of emergency, more and more scientists starting to release scientific papers on geoengineering. Recent discussions among scientists are getting more intense regarding its effectiveness, cost/benefit, side effect risks, and whether implementation of such measures can be internationally controllable or not. No decision has been made yet to take such emergency action, but they are conducting feasibility studies of all phases just in case.

EDAHIRO: Dedicated scientists have warned of global warming and increasing CO2 emissions for a long time. But the global community hasn't taken any heed. We have seen that international negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences -- notably at COP15 in 2009 and COP16 in 2010 -- did not work well enough to reduce emissions. In the meantime, global warming is getting worse and worse. Scientists are afraid that a climate tipping point might be passed if nothing is done. That's why they are saying we will need to resort to extreme measures like geoengineering before it's too late. Of course, they would rather not have to take such measures, but they insist that the earth could face some serious problems if we do not we act sooner to reduce CO2 emissions.

TANAKA: When I went to Norway, I was surprised to learn that over 10 million tons of CO2 are buried under the North Sea

EDAHIRO: This was promoted by a Norwegian energy company, Statoil. Norway is the world's leading country in promoting CCS, because a very high carbon tax was introduced. So, companies have to pay extremely high taxes geared to their CO2 emissions. Production activities in any industry normally generate CO2 emissions, and it turns out that it costs less for them to pay for CO2 capture and storage than to pay a large amount of carbon tax. Norway is making every effort to minimize domestic CO2 emissions by imposing this high tax. That's what we need, though Japan has not introduced a carbon tax yet.

EMORI: From a long-term perspective, I think CCS technology will be an inevitable choice for human beings. For example, coal is an inexpensive and abundant energy source, right? I believe it will be impossible for us to keep such an energy source sealed underground. We are forced therefore to choose between just emitting CO2 or burying CO2 after burning this plentiful resource. In a situation where all the energy we want can be supplied by solar power only, we might be able to give up coal. But I think this would be technically difficult. That's why I think CCS will be an essential technology.

EDAHIRO: Of course, it is important to change the whole social structure and we can work it out by encouraging people, but I personally think that it would be much better if every one of us and every region made a decision to disconnect from the electric power grid. I constantly feel that I would like to be off the power grid. In Sweden, people can make their own choice which energy to use. They can decide to use wind power although its price is higher. By contrast, there are no such alternatives in Japan. We have to purchase electricity from the local power company, no matter how the electricity was generated. If we don't want to buy the electricity not knowing the source, we have to try not to use much electricity, period, and generate a minimal amount of electricity using a solar power system if we want to get off the grid.

TANAKA: That story reminds me of my book, "Let's buy an electric vehicle at Yamada Denki electronic retail stores!" (laugh)

EDAHIRO: We have not had a choice of being off the local electricity suppliers' grid, because even if we generate electricity with wind turbines or solar systems, it has been technically difficult to store the generated electricity. But with storage batteries, we will be able to generate electricity in the daytime and use the stored electricity at night. Power storage has been the major bottleneck so far. The electric vehicles Tanaka-san just mentioned can be regarded essentially as batteries, as they are mounted with storage cells. We can think of it this way: "Electric vehicles are running batteries. The battery sometimes drives." We can use electric vehicles as storage batteries for households, storing electricity in the vehicle's battery during the daytime and using the stored electricity at night. These technologies have a great deal of potential.

TANAKA: Yamada Denki has started selling solar power systems and electric vehicles. Panasonic Corp. is developing a home energy management system capable of covering an entire household's electricity needs, and so has TDK Corp, a leading Japanese manufacturer of electronic products. The technologies of both companies supply electricity on a direct current (DC) basis. Renewable energies are supplied as DC current and the electric-powered equipment also runs on DC. Because power companies are positioned between energy sources and electric equipment, DC needs to be converted into alternating current (AC), and reconverted from AC back into DC for household use. If DC to DC flow is available, electricity consumption will be immediately reduced by 20 percent as this prevents energy loss from electricity conversion.

EDAHIRO: Power companies convert electricity into AC because DC is not suitable for long distance travel as this causes great power loss. Under the present system, electricity is generated at a faraway site and travels long way. In order to avoid power loss during transmission, electricity needs to be sent out in AC form and converted to DC when it reaches its destination. If we can generate electricity on the roof, we can use DC without making conversions.

YAMADA: The volume of renewable energy generated in Japan is estimated to be around 3.7 percent, isn't it? I believe that Tanaka-san's book estimates that geothermal energy could supply about 30 percent of total power generation in Japan if effectively utilized.

TANAKA: The largest area in Japan is the ocean. Japan's territorial waters cover an area eleven times greater than its land area. Japan could generate more electricity than we consume if wave and wind power generation systems were set up in the ocean.

YAMADA: We can even export electricity.

TANAKA: Yes, definitely. We should work on developing these technologies.

(To be continued in Part 3)