East Asia Forum - Llewelyn Hughes on Japan deserves some praise on climate change

Japan has received some sharp criticism following the G7 meeting in June 2015 for its stance on climate change. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions of 26 per cent below 2013 emission levels by 2030, which is equivalent to 18 per cent less than 1990 emissions. If replicated globally, this would fall short of what is needed to keep the risk of catastrophic climate change to reasonable levels.

But this criticism is largely unfair. Japan’s energy supply remains in turmoil following the Fukushima disaster of 11 March 2011. All governments face the reality that transforming energy systems takes time and requires overcoming domestic obstacles to change. The truth is that Japan cannot now be a pathbreaker on climate change. But by keeping its target within the range of those announced by others, it has ensured that other countries cannot use Japan as an excuse for shirking.

The protocol establishing binding targets for developed countries famously bears the name of Japan’s former capital of Kyoto. Tackling climate change was touted as a symbolic goal by Japanese policymakers, and former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama was lauded for committing Japan to cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020.

Since then, things have changed. At the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 19), under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw, Japan — along with Australia — was criticised as a climate laggard for offering a 3.8 per cent GHG emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. In the lead-up to COP 21 in Paris in December 2015, Japan’s climate efforts are again being criticised as not going far enough.

But this view fails to recognise that Japan is still reeling from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Previously, a little under a third of Japan’s electricity was delivered from its fleet of 54 nuclear units. In the wake of the accident, remaining units were idled and emissions from fossil fuel combustion jumped. Energy-related emissions grew from 1139 to 1235 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from 2010 to 2013, an increase of 8 per cent. Japan’s nuclear plants are now subject to enhanced safety checks, and the power utilities are required to renegotiate with local governments.

Many countries failed to meet their Kyoto commitments. But this does not mean the international pledges governments are making in the lead-up to Paris are unimportant. International commitments — even in the absence of compliance mechanisms — can shape domestic policy choices by narrowing the range of what is acceptable.

Japan should be congratulated for trying to keep its emissions projections at a level sufficient not to undermine international negotiations. Indeed, a core goal of its long-term energy planning process was establishing a target for 2030 that approximates that of Europe and the United States, despite the effects of idling nuclear units on its emissions profile.

Read the whole article at East Asia Forum.

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Updated:  27 November 2018/Responsible Officer:  JI Management Group/Page Contact:  Japan Institute