Introduction to the Climete Change Research Program Japanese

Introduction (Program Leader: Y. Sasano)

-Translated from the article for the News of the National Institute for Environmental Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, (in Japanese), June, 2006.-

Issues in Climate Change

 It is not an exaggeration to say that, judging by the size and severity of its predicted impact, climate change from global warming caused by greenhouse gases is one of the most important environmental issues facing humanity. In order to realize a sustainable society, it is essential that we come up with ways to halt the progress of global warming and mitigate the effects of climate change. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in February 2005, and in Japan the “Kyoto Protocol Target Achievement Plan” (approved by the Cabinet in April 2005) is currently being implemented. However, it is important to remember that the Kyoto Protocol commitment to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to 6% less than 1990 levels is but the first preliminary step in tackling this climate change issue.

 In order to mitigate the progress of climate change so that it will not further endanger ecosystems and humanity, we have to limit concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a certain level. The issue here is to know what represents a safe level. Furthermore, current research indicates that stabilizing concentrations at a certain level will require a 50% decrease in annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The second issue, therefore, is to determine what we can do to reduce emissions by half and come up with realistic ways to bring about a society that ceases to induce climate change.

 Even if it is possible to put these plans into place, for the time being, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from anthropogenic emissions are going to continue to increase, and there remains a possibility that global warming and the resultant climate change will have an impact on ecosystems and humanity. Because of this, it is necessary to comprehend current conditions, have an understanding of the mechanisms (including feedback processes) in play, obtain technology that will help us make accurate predications of future change, and provide a detailed and quantitative account of predicted climate change and its associated risks and impacts and their respective uncertainty ranges. These activities are extremely important for setting policy on global warming and climate.

 The issues can be summed up as follows.

  • How will climate change affect humanity and ecosystems? What levels of global warming and climate change are permissible?
  • What kinds of temperature increases are caused by increases in greenhouse gas concentrations? What kinds of climate change are caused by such increases?
  • What level of increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration is acceptable? What amount of greenhouse gases can be emitted by humans?
  • What is the current spatial distribution of greenhouse gas concentrations and how do they change over time? What is the current spatial distribution of natural and anthropogenic sources and sinks and how do they change over time?
  • What are the mechanisms of natural (oceanic, terrestrial vegetation) greenhouse gas sources and sinks? Will natural sinks increase or decrease as a result of climate change?
  • What scenarios will help us to achieve our goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
  • What are cost-effective and socially acceptable climate change countermeasures?
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Priority Program: Research on Climate Change

 These problems require comprehensive research with a medium to long term outlook, and that is why the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) established the Climate Change Program as one of its priority research programs. The new five-year plan that started at the beginning of this fiscal year defines the Climate Change Program as follows.

 ...[T]here is not only a pressing need to achieve a reduction in emissions as prescribed by the “Kyoto Protocol Target Achievement Plan” (approved by the Cabinet in April 2005), but we must also build an international framework to follow up on the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and find ways to transition to a future socio-economic system with low greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, we must continue to evaluate climate change countermeasures for the both the medium and long range. Based on an understanding of the mechanisms of climate change and its impacts, and using predictions of the possible effects of climate change, we will set cost-effective and socially acceptable long-term climate stabilization goals and work towards creating a vision of a society that ceases to induce climate change at both the domestic and international levels. [...] In order to identify the path to success in these endeavors, we will undertake the following kinds of research during the period of the second five-year plan at NIES.

  • Long-term variation mechanisms of greenhouse gas concentrations and their regional characteristics
  • Greenhouse gas observation from space and use of the observations to estimate global carbon flux distribution
  • Assessment of climate risk based on integrated climate, impact, and land use models
  • Developing a vision of a low carbon society and identifying countermeasures through integrated assessment
Figure: Organization of the Climate Change Program

 The Climate Change Program is made up of the core projects dealing with the four issues outlined above, in addition to eight related projects, and certain climate-related activities (atmospheric/oceanic monitoring, terrestrial monitoring, environmental database, etc.) undertaken by the Center for Global Environmental Research (CGER). The core projects involve not only research funded by our operating grant, but also research that is funded by the Ministry of the Environment’s competitive Global Environment Research Fund, so they encompass a comprehensive perspective. Related projects are mainly funded by external research funding. The activities of CGER are funded through our operating grant. This research program is being undertaken with the cooperation of the four new research sections established at CGER and the three new offices for monitoring and database activities. It is supported by researchers who have simultaneous responsibilities at CGER and other research units, leaders of related projects in other units, and contract staff such as Fellows. (See Image.)

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Our Approach to Research

 The Climate Change Program is one of the new priority programs that came into existence as a result of the NIES policy of “focus and select”. We are not looking simply to store up the research potential (in the form of human resources) and research funding that we have accumulated through the Special Priority Research Projects that we worked on in the past, but to make use of the interaction between researchers and the synergy between researchers in different fields in order to seek out new ways of expanding our research. Furthermore, since our resources (personnel and funding) are limited, we must look to prioritize our involvement with future research topics. In addition, we do not want our involvement to stop at presenting our research findings to the academic community; rather, we endeavour to find ways to communicate the information to the public in order to increase awareness and understanding of environmental issues and contribute to environmental administration and policy setting.

Yasuhiro Sasano
Program Leader, Climate Change Research Program
(Director, Center for Global Environmental Research)

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