By Chris G. Pope.

On 7 October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report which focused on the devastating impacts of a 1.5°C rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels. In short, the report sends the message that 1.5°C should be the limit of global warming, given the risks. Meanwhile, other scientific literature suggests even that might not be enough to stave off irreversible and catastrophic warming of the planet.

China has the financial power and the political incentive to be the vanguard of a green transition, while Japanese businesses are eager to make investments into developing countries in the Asia-Pacific.

However, for better or worse, global politics is in flux. The inauguration of US President Trump was met with despair among those who place climate change front and centre of the challenges that beset planet Earth. Most recently, in a 500–page environmental impact statement, the Trump Administration made a dumbfounding assertion that global temperatures will increase by 3.5°C by 2100 whilst implying there is little to be done. However, the administration’s diplomatic ‘wallflowerism’ has led to interesting developments in international politics that open up avenues for a meaningful transition towards renewable energy. Therefore, let us for now reserve despair only for certainty, and look instead for reasons to doubt.

Political changes have been striking at times. Take for example Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s recent visit to China, the first of any Japanese prime minister in seven years. The visit was significant because Mr Abe, elected just under six years ago, has made clear his commitment to joining negotiations for a US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and to forming strategic partnerships to encircle China in order to stymie the latter’s meteoric rise at the expense, in the realist perspective at least, of Japanese geopolitical aspirations. Now, far from ratcheting up territorial disputes and the so-called ‘threat narratives’ between the two states, over two speeches both Prime Minister Abe and Premier Li Keqiang emphasised the importance of a long and cherished relationship between their countries.

Of course, we should not get too carried away, as diplomatic niceties do not guarantee anything. First, there are still many difficult issues between both nations. Second, previous political regimes in Japan that have endeavoured to achieve greater national autonomy in international affairs (that is, independence from the US) have not tended to last long, often being subjected to abuse and intimidation from their American counterparts. One example is the Hatoyama Yukio government of 2009–2010, which had sought to construct an East Asian Community with China just three years before Abe’s electoral victory in 2012.

However, Mr Abe, who has aligned Japan with the US, has been left with little option following President Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP and politico-economic turmoil in Europe. Although there are many reasons for despair, it is possible that the retrenchment of US control over global affairs might create space for a truly positive change in environmental politics. As Mr Abe remarked in China, both nations getting along together is a start. And there will be no effective response to climate change in the region without integration at some level.

Make no mistake, this is not a question of good nations versus bad nations; it is a question of opportunity. With spiralling US debt and China and the UN both championing the idea of a new international currency reserve ahead of the US dollar, the current US administration is facing enormous economic concerns. There are concerns in China too: not only is coal becoming an increasingly less viable option for energy provision in the near future, both ethically and economically, but much of the population is growing accustomed to higher standards of living in a time of credit excess and asset bubbles. Perhaps, then, this might offer an opportunity for Japan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, recently consecrated as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, has promoted the rise of a so-called ‘ecological civilisation’ (shengtai wenming) alongside the Chinese dream of modernisation. Further, as a conduit for pioneering green development, Mr Xi has pioneered the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a global-scale infrastructure development strategy referred to as the Chinese Marshall Plan – which aims to integrate most of Eurasia and surrounding countries through an overland economic corridor and maritime routes.

Of course, it is possible that the BRI may allow the Chinese state to off-load its polluting industries abroad. However, China today is now the world’s largest consumer, producer and investor for renewables, is globally dominant in solar, hydropower, wind and nuclear energy, and is the largest producer and consumer of electric vehicles. At the same time, links have been made between the BRI and the UN sustainable development agenda. For example, Erik Solheim, director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), speaks about the BRI’s potential for expanding green technology throughout the continent. Nonetheless, China must move away from using coal, and quickly. This is not simply an economic matter either, with 96 per cent of the population living in areas that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines of PM2.5 for concentrations of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere. Environmental pollution is visible in China.

Japan, too, has made important strides in developing renewable alternatives, particularly by developing new and efficient energy infrastructures based on smart technology. Japan is also forging a model towards a ‘hydrogen society’ (suiso shakai), to test the feasibility of using renewable energy to power the conversion of water into hydrogen gas to meet the nation’s energy needs.

Indeed, increased research and development into renewables can drive down global costs for green technology to help them compete with the heavily subsidised fossil fuel industry, providing even climate change deniers with an incentive to transition. Meanwhile, Japan has significant expertise and a private sector long accustomed to promoting economical and efficient commodities in order to maximise market competitiveness, while regional integration can lead to an Asian Super Grid where energy can be shared internationally. China has the financial power and the political incentive to be the vanguard of a green transition, while Japanese businesses are eager to make investments into developing countries in the Asia-Pacific.

In a time of global political flux, why couldn’t Sino-Japanese relations prosper? Crazier things have happened in politics. You might say it is a fool’s game to bet on politics – all the more reason, then, to doubt the inevitability of ruin, and to act.

Chris G. Pope is an Assistant Professor at Kyoto Women’s University, specialising in East Asian politics. He is co-author of Environmental Pollution and the Media: Political Discourses of Risk and Responsibility in Australia, China and Japan (2017). His PhD thesis, entitled ‘Bringing back “Japan”: Prime Minister Abe’s political rhetoric in critical perspective’, uses mixed-methods to contrast the Prime Minister’s political discourse with his administration’s political agenda. Image Credit: CC Wikimedia Commons.

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