Kyoto Summit: How climate takes its toll on Japan

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The worst fears of environmentalists are being realised in the very city where the UN is meeting to discuss global warming. Richard Lloyd Parry in Kyoto reports on the toll which climate change is taking on Japan's most traditional symbols.

Every autumn, as the maple leaves turn red, the hills around Kyoto catch fire in a blaze of colours which draws tourists from all over Japan. Travel agencies run maple-leaf tours and maple-leaf weekend breaks.

The Buddhist temples are crammed with amateur cameramen photographing the most elegant specimens. The leaves are celebrated as much for their transience as their beauty - by the end of November, the trees are bare, the paths are swept and the leaves float up in the smoke of countless bonfires.

But not this year. As the UN's conference on global warming rolls towards its uncertain conclusion, Kyoto is obliging environmentalists by experiencing unprecedentedly warm weather. Since delegates arrived a week ago, there has been one brief snowfall: for the rest of the time conditions have been almost spring-like, with sunshine, clear skies and temperatures as high as 21C. The autumn colours are still blazing, and the hills around the city have wide patches of green.

Between 1986 and 1996, according to statistics gathered by Friends of the Earth, the average December temperature of Kyoto was 5.3C to 8.4C, with an average maximum of 12.9C. This year they have gone as high as 21C: activists have little doubt about the cause. "It's another side of global warming," says Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth. "When Al Gore arrives tomorrow in his air-conditioned limousine, and drives up to his air-conditioned hotel for his carefully controlled meeting, I hope he'll consider the uncontrolled things that are happening in the outside world."

Whether Kyoto's winter warmth is really a result of global warming or just a random weather variation is difficult to prove. But the autumn colours are not the only Japanese symbol to suffer from rising temperatures. This year the mantle of snow on the volcanic cone of Mt Fuji is thinner than ever and a creeper known as pioneer plant is crawling higher up the mountain, in areas which used to be skiing grounds. "I started caring for this mountain around 1947," said Tei Takagi, a former forestry officer who lives near it. "At that time, come October and November, the mountain would be covered with about two metres of snow."

Recently, it has been sparse even on the 3,776m summit, where the average temperature has risen to -8.3C, compared with -10.7C in the 1940s.