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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Confronting Climate Change

Apr. 21, 2015

On The Focus today we're looking at the threat of climate change and the people trying to address it. We've all seen images of melting glaciers and polar bears drifting on ice. But scientists say the problems aren't just in the Arctic anymore. A violent cyclone devastated the island of Vanuatu last month. Researchers say the surface of the sea has gotten warmer, and that gave the cyclone its deadly power.

World leaders have spent decades discussing how to reduce emissions of the gases that are warming our planet. They meet every year at a conference on climate change hosted by the United Nations. The next one will take place in Paris at the end of this year.

NHK WORLD's Takafumi Terui spoke to the man leading Japan's negotiations about how Tokyo plans to contribute.

Japanese leaders were expected to submit a set of targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by March 31st. But they failed to meet the deadline. They say they hope to present a plan in June.

Atsuyuki Oike heads the government's working group on climate change. He says everyone involved knows how urgent the situation is.

Atsuyuki Oike, Foreign Ministry Director-General for Global Issues.

Japan once played a key role in international efforts to counter climate change. In 1997, it hosted a conference that produced the Kyoto Protocol. The framework set emission targets for industrialized countries. Developing nations were exempted. But the protocol faltered when the United States refused to ratify it. The nation was the world's biggest emitter at the time. Leaders in Washington said they wouldn't support a treaty that didn't include the developing world.

Today, China and India combined are responsible for one third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Japanese leaders have come to believe it's time to include them and other developing nations into a new framework. Oike points out that 7 major developing countries are now producing almost the same level of greenhouse gases as all developed nations combined. He says that without cutting emissions from those countries, climate change cannot be dealt with.

Seven leading polluting countries.

The rift between industrialized and developing nations remains the focus of debate. One of the questions is how much the richest countries should help the developing world. Oike says Japan can give more than just financial aid. He says the country is home to some of the world's most advanced environmental technologies. He points out a lot is going on in the area of transfer of technology.

Negotiators hope to set up a framework for regulating emissions beyond 2020 at their meeting in Paris. Many delegates say striking an agreement is a matter of survival for the planet's most vulnerable communities.

Takafumi Terui joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Takafumi, what's the big picture here? How much is our climate changing?

Terui: This graph shows how temperatures have changed over the last 1,000 years in the northern hemisphere. As you can see, there wasn't much change over the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution. Then there's a spike. Since the end of the 19th century, the surface of our planet has gotten warmer by almost 1 degree Celsius. Scientists say if this carries on, average temperatures could rise 4.8 degrees by the end of the century. That could mean sea levels will rise by around 80 centimeters.

Climate change in the millennium leading up to today. Climate change in the now and for the future.

Beppu: We keep hearing the same things from politicians. Some want everyone to bear equal responsibility, while others talk about past emissions. Is this still the biggest hurdle for the negotiators?

Terui: Yes it is. Developing countries say industrialized nations have emitted so much in the past, so they should shoulder more of the burden. Industrialized nations say those who are polluting now should take more responsibility. Then there are smaller developing countries-- the ones most at risk from climate change. They could be wiped out completely if sea levels rise, so they want immediate, serious commitments from everyone.

I spoke to a director of a Japanese NGO that lobbies for action against climate change. Kimiko Hirata says when we're talking about equal responsibility we should consider both past and future emissions.

Beppu: People say the conference in Paris is do or die. If delegates can't strike a deal there, they may not have another chance. What's the chance they'll manage it?

Terui: Of course it won't be easy. But the negotiators know the world is watching. They're holding lots of talks in the run-up to Paris, and those talks are gaining momentum.

Only 34 countries have given the UN their targets for cutting emissions, but many more are promising theirs soon, including Japan, and the world's largest emitter, China.

Hirata says the decisions in Paris will affect us all, including future generations. She said it involves everyone, because climate change is a problem for the whole planet.