Fukushima Meltdowns Could Doom Global Climate-Change Regime

For nearly two decades, the World Bank and United Nations hailed the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) as a corporate model of environmental responsibility Japan’s major utility was seen as an exemplary member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, along with its technology partners GE, Toshiba and Hitachi. To fulfill emission cuts under the Kyoto Protocol, Tepco was a leader in carbon trading with deals that involved Southeast Asian hydroelectric operators, an Australian sustainable forest plantation and a manure-to-biogas project at the biggest hog farm in Chile.

“Tepco is addressing global warming,” the company public-relations office could boast. “We promote low-carbon, high-efficiency power generation and technical development for the reduction of CO2 emissions.” In a word, that meant nuclear.

What a difference a day makes. Within 12 hours of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the reactors at Fukushima 1 started to melt-down. The powerful blasts that blew the roofs off Reactors 2 and 3 also exploded the myth of nuclear power as an eco-friendly and clean source of energy. The credibility crises for a high-profile supporter like Tepco could be fatal to the U.N. strategy on climate change, including emission-reduction targets and the carbon trading market.

Death of the Biosphere

As thermal power plants fueled by coal and low-grade petroleum take over from five shut-down nuclear stations across northern Japan, talk of nuclear-generated clean energy has abruptly ceased. The Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes has quietly removed Japan’s major utility for “a significant reduction in Tepco’s sustainability score.” Score? That’s an understatement.

The coastal area of Fukushima Province is now a depopulated wasteland, where abandoned dairy cows are left to starve and deer will be giving birth to deformed calves.Though the media remains understandably fixated on the human toll, the larger biosphere is under extreme threat from radioactivity-caused mutation and kill-off of animal and plant species. The area’s forested hills and meadows provide habitat for abundant wild boar, rabbits, the Soma breed of feral horse and large migratory birds.The ecosystem is especially rich in wild mushrooms, red pines and oaks.

The Humboldt Current, known to the Japanese as the kuroshio or Black Stream, is conveying  radioactive water in an arc around the North Pacific, poisoning the northern fisheries. Concentration of radiation up the marine food chain is posing an unprecedented threat to seals, walruses, dolphins and whales from the waters of Kamchatka across the Bering Strait to southern Alaska and the west coasts of Canada, the United States and Mexico.

The response from the environmental movement has been tepid toward Tepco, compared with the annual outcry against Japanese whalers. In terms of numbers and biological threat, hunts for sea mammals are a mere drop in the bucket compared with the potential for radiation-caused mass extinctions.Perhaps the environmentalists are simply left speechless by the extent of this crisis.

To understand how an environmental violator like Tepco could be hyped for so long as an eco-hero, the story must be revisited at its beginning.

The Kyoto Hijack

In early December 1997, I put the finishing touches on a parody of Henri Rousseau’s painting “The Dream”. My design, for the cover of a paid advertising section of a Tokyo-based newspaper, juxtaposed smokestacks behind the nude woman lying on a couch in the jungle. The artwork turned out to be far more ironic than my intended jest. That special supplement, for distribution at the Kyoto summit for the U.N. Framework  Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), was funded by Tepco.

At the seminal conference, the American negotiators took a hard line against the draft of the Kyoto Protocol yet, surprisingly, met with hardly any resistance from the host Japanese delegation. The pro-environment clauses from the earlier Earth Summit at Rio de Janiero  – mandatory reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by every industry and global biodiversity – were quickly weeded out, reducing the treaty to a bare-bones endorsement of emissions trading.

The realization then struck like satori- the Kyoto Protocol was being hijacked by nuclear power companies and their big industry allies.The removal of genuine environmental provisions was part of a well-rehearsed but unspoken plan. Tepco, it turned out, had long been conniving with other nuclear companies as well as Japan’s ministry of economy, as early as the planning phase for the Rio Earth Summit in 1993. Kyoto was an ambush immediately followed by a hijack.

Sleight of Hand

The stripped-down Kyoto Protocol benefited the big utilities in three ways:

–  justifying a larger market share for nuclear power in spite of post-Chernobyl safety fears;

– winning a higher electricity rate for nuclear energy than for coal or oil-fired plants; and

– pushing tax credits and public grants for introducing “clean coal” technology to thermal plants.

Carbon trading was then a back-up mechanism for industrial corporations in case national emissions targets could not be reached on schedule.

Pushing aside environmental activists, the industrialists constructed an elitist platform for the global-warming issue, and funded climate scientists to come up with convincing data. Data tampering finally came to light just before the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. One doesn’t have to be a climate skeptic to realize the abuse of science.

Meanwhile, the international banks hired legal staff to invent the formulas for converting blank sheets of paper into carbon credits. Some of those briefings were held at posh law offices equipped with expresso makers inside the IFC with its sweeping view of Hong Kong Harbour.

The carbon offset system works as follows. Whenever emissions reduction targets cannot be attained, corporations are allowed to make deductions from their carbon dioxide output – on paper – through purchases of credits from low-carbon industries in the developing countries .For example, Tepco bought credits from hydropower stations in the Philippines and Vietnam under the assumption that these carbon-free projects were built as an alternative to coal-fired plants. Likewise, when Chile’s biggest hog farm decided to use manure to make biogas, Tepco’s agents swooped in to claim 2 million tons of carbon credits, known as certified emissions reductions (CER) under CDM guidelines, for an undisclosed sum. (The lack of public disclosure of the amount of these transactions sends a troubling signal.)

In the real economy, of course, those projects were built for cost-saving at a time of rising oil prices and not planned as low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuel. Reality doesn’t matter in this game, not after Japanese utilities companies have acquired more than 200 million tons in CERs.From its inception, carbon trading was an evasion of duty, a sleight of hand to deceive the public, and a phantasm for accounting purposes.

Money Grown on Trees

Soon after my quirky adaptation of Rousseau’s “Dream”, the nuclear industry’s publicity campaign became deadly serious. Tepco’s public image was honed by Dentsu, Asia’s ad agency, which also handles Toshiba; while GE ran its Ecomagination campaign through the Omnicom unit of New York-based BBDO and its own MSNBC network. Since the early years of television when Ronald Reagan hosted the General Electric Theater, GE has been aware of the media’s magical grip over public perceptions. Hitachi’s PR campaigns are run by Hakuhodo and McCann-Erickson.

Public-relations professionals were needed to sell the notion of carbon offsets for “sustainable” plantations at the expense of natural forests and desert ecology along with their traditional inhabitants. In 2004, Tepco committed $2.5 million to the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund., while requesting bank officials to allow emissions trading for forestation projects. At the time, the Tepco office in Perth was preparing a plantation in western Australian Outback.

The objective was to gain a double harvest. The first was from the carbon credit – by trading from one Tepco affiliate to another – and then from the “thinning” of the plantation for wood to be sold to a pulp mill. Under the rules, forests planted for sequestering or trapping carbon are not supposed to be cut down. Loopholes exist with allowances for thinning out densely planted stands and for timber taken after a forest fire, as happened at the John Hancock-Manulife carbon-offset plantations in Victoria state.

Since nuclear plants do not emit CO2, why did Tepco chase after carbon credits? Coal-fired plants are operated to meet peak-hour demand, for instance, in the morning when offices open or in the early evening as families switch on their televisions and air conditioners. Thermal plants also provide the power of last resort whenever nuclear power plants fail, as in 2007 when the Niigata earthquake shut down the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear facility.The subsequent reliance on thermal power put Tepco at the top of the list of Japan’s worst carbon emitters, forcing it to scramble after more carbon credits.

End of the Line

Now, since the shutdown of several nuclear plants across northern Japan, in addition to Fukushima 1, the entire carbon-reduction schedule is in shambles. Japan’s pledge at the Cancun summit on climate change was to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. This promise seemed attainable through plans to construct 13 new nuclear plants, in addition to 54 existing facilities. Since the Fukushima 1 meltdowns, however, Tepco was forced to delay completion of its Higashidori plant on the tip of northern Honshu.

The Kyoto Protocol  will expire on New Year’s Eve, the moment of truth for global warming. The U.N. climate-change summit COP17, to be held this November in Durban, is looking like another casualty of the Fukushima 1 disaster. Now with five nuclear plants shut down and new projects delayed, Japan cannot possibly meet its emissions-reduction pledge.

The meltdowns have also triggered a chain reaction of debt. Tepco and Japan Inc.are sliding into insolvency and eventually so could the European insurers, GE, AREVA and several pro-nuclear governments. The carbon-credit market is obviously going to take a hit. The U.N. campaign to halt global warming was doomed by its over-reliance on nuclear energy, which is heading toward the same fate as the steam engine. The grassroots environmental movement is, in any case, better off without the cheating, deception and profiteering from the carbon credit scam.

The psychological dependency on nuclear power goes deeper, to blind faith in a fallen idol. The global elite pinned their hopes on the high priests of nuclear power, who failed to heed the warnings from genuine science. To believe in nuclear energy as a solution is to belong to a cult as crazed and toxic as Aum Shinriyko. The Fukushima disaster, like the Tokyo subway gassing, proves again that every cult contains the seed of its own apocalypse.

In late November, instead of fretting about the coming debacle for the U.N. or wasting cash on airline fuel charges, conference fees and a hotel room in Durban, I’ll be taking the train to the far end the Gobi desert to burn overgrown grapevines inside a hand-made charcoal kiln that cost less than a Starbucks cappuccino to build from recycled materials.Those lumps of carbon, once out of the kiln, will be buried – never to return as gas to the atmosphere – inside holes for grape cuttings since charcoal retains water in otherwise dry sand.

After all is said and done, someone has to wrestle with the demons of global warming. Besides, the new grapes should make for some passable wine.


Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, is a Hong Kong-based environmental writer and the Editor at large at the 4th Media.

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