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Japan Seeking China's Cooperation to Cut Air Pollution

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Japan is trying to enlist China's help to fight air pollution around East Asia. Some environmental experts in Japan believe their country's problem with declining air quality can be traced to its giant neighbor. But, as Liz Noh reports from Tokyo, assigning blame is a politically sensitive issue.

Officials with Japan's Environment Ministry say their counterparts in China have agreed to cooperate in the fight against air pollution.

Japanese officials say former Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi and China's environmental protection head, Zhou Shengxian, reached a verbal agreement in late August. But, the details of such potential cooperation have not yet been worked out.

Earlier this year, Japan experienced high levels of ozone pollution, also known as "photochemical smog", which is caused when sunlight reacts with emissions from cars and factories.

Komichi Ikeda is the deputy director of the privately funded Environmental Research Institute. She says the current smog problems have not been seen in Japan since the 1970s, when the country was still industrializing.

Ikeda says China is now in a similar position.

"And it's another time to watch the photochemical pollution that must be coming from China, because there are very high concentration[s] in China now," she said. "They have industrialized very quickly and there are no specific or enough control[s] of pollution from automobiles and stationary sources.

Ikeda says 28 Japanese prefectures have had warnings for high levels of ozone pollution this year, particularly along the Sea of Japan, across from China.

China's cities have some of the world's worst air quality and the problem is spreading. Pollutants from China have been found in the air in South Korea, Japan and even as far away as the West Coast of the United States.

But finger pointing by Japan at China is a diplomatically unpopular approach.

Reiko Sodeno is deputy director at the global environmental issues division of Japan's Environment Ministry. She says Japan is trying to collect more specific data without accusing China directly.

"Experts pointed out the effects of China. But at the moment, they cannot show concrete contributions from China to Japan," she said. "We notice the effect, but we cannot tell the concrete value or rate of contribution."

That is why Japan is urging cooperative research with China to try to solve the problem.

Sodeno says Japan has suggested the two countries work together to monitor ozone levels, using equipment Japan would provide. Japan is also promoting an easier, less-expensive way to monitor ozone, using simulation models.

However, Japanese officials say since there is no written agreement yet, Japanese and Chinese environment ministries must continue talks to work out the details.

Sodeno says getting China to cooperate in research using simulation models could be difficult.

"The simulation model issue, it's more delicate and sensitive because using [a] simulation model, we can detect where is the source and how it contributes to air pollution in Japan," she said.

Sodeno also says transparency could be an issue and that it could be difficult to get accurate data from Chinese officials for scientific research.

Masako Ogawa is deputy director of the environmental cooperation department at Japan's Ministry of Environment. She is more optimistic about plans for cooperation.

"There may be some bureaucracy and [we] may have some problems, but I understand it's very important to engage them from the beginning to have some discussion or dialogue," she said.

Ogawa says the Chinese government is anxious to tackle the problem, particularly because China has committed to cleaning up its air before the Beijing Olympics next summer.

Beyond the Olympics, China has a five-year plan to reduce energy consumption and pollution.

Ogawa says Japan's efforts to help clean up China's air are part of a long commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are thought to contribute to global warming. The emissions are chiefly the result of burning carbon-based fuels, such as coal and oil.

Japan is working to get the international community to agree on a new framework to limit greenhouse gas emissions that would replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. Drafted a decade ago, the Kyoto Protocol sets mandatory emissions cuts for developed nations, but does not require mandatory cuts by developing countries, such as China.

Ogawa says that, although discussions with China may lack detail now, Japan sees them as an important step to engage China on environmental issues in a broader, global context.

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