Tue, Feb 15, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Kyoto protocol doing little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

By Justin McCurry  /  THE GUARDIAN , KYOTO

The Kyoto international conference hall is deserted now, with the events of December 1997 a surreal memory. For several days that month this architectural nightmare from the 1970s was the setting for the most concerted attempt yet to save the planet from self-asphyxiation.

In the critical final 48 hours of the UN summit on climate change, exhausted government delegates fought off journalists; UN officials worked into the night negotiating every comma and full stop of the final document, the oil lobby twisted arms (very effectively, it turned out) and John Prescott sat on the floor of a replica Japanese teahouse for a live interview with David Frost.

And so the Kyoto protocol was born. Just over seven years on, is the city aware of the mixed health of the treaty that bears its name? Does it even realize what all the fuss was about?

Not really, is the unscientific conclusion of a straw poll conducted at Kyoto's main railway station. Schoolchildren, salarymen and pensioners were united in their ignorance of the significance of Feb. 16.

Fumiaki Utaka of the Kyoto City Government's environment bureau cites the failure of poster campaigns urging people to leave their cars at home one day a month as proof of a lack of urgency in the city.

"It's a lifestyle thing," he said. "It's very hard to persuade people to change their habits."

Still, Kyoto is trying to do its bit. Dozens of Kyoto's buses run on bio-diesel fuel derived from tempura cooking oil, and some offer travel around the city center for just ?100 (just under US$1) at weekends and on public holidays. Two years ago, Kyoto's shops became the first in Japan to affix certificates showing the energy-saving capability of items such as fridges and air conditioners.

The city has also committed itself to reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions, by 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2010. It is faring marginally better than many signatories to the protocol: by 2001 it had achieved a modest reduction of 0.9 percent.

Japan is way behind schedule. It is required to cut emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2008 to 2012, but by 2003, total emissions had reached 1.33 billion tonnes, 7.6 percent higher than 15 years ago.

The main offenders are private homes, offices and vehicles. The popularity of eco-unfriendly items such as air conditioners, kettles and hobs has been matched by a rise in the number of households, as more people live alone. Now, the average household owns two air conditioners compared with one 15 years ago.

The story is the same on the roads. Japan is at the forefront of hybrid engine technology, but in 2002 greenhouse gas emissions by the transport sector rose by 20 percent from 1990 levels. More miles are being clocked as car ownership continues to soar.

Petrol-electric hybrids are still expensive to make and have yet to make their presence felt. According to the Japan Automobile Research Institute, there were just 130,000 clean-energy vehicles on Japan's roads in 2002. But carmakers clearly believe they have a future. Among them is Toyota, whose hybrids, such as the Prius, contain an electric-battery pack recharged when the car's brakes are applied.

Car manufacturers say they are improving fuel efficiency ahead of the introduction of a tax on petrol, coal and oil next year. The tax horrifies many Japanese exporters, who say it will blunt their competitive edge. Even supporters of the tax say it is unlikely that the proposed levy of ?2,400 per tonne of carbon will discourage car use. They want a tax of at least ?6,000 per tonne.

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