Japanese opposition easily wins elections — running on a much stronger climate target

For only the second time in postwar history, Japanese voters cast out the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party in elections on Sunday, handing a landslide victory to an untested opposition that must tackle severe economic problems and point Japan in a new direction.

Voters flocked to the main opposition Democratic Party, a broad coalition of former socialists and ruling party defectors who promised to ease Japan’s growing social inequalities and reduce its traditional dependency on Washington.

However, the victory seemed less an embrace of the opposition and its policies than a resounding rejection of the conservative incumbents, whom voters blame for this former economic superpower’s stubborn decline and increasingly cloudy future.

The big news for climate science realists is that the Democratic Party of Japan has a much stronger target than the one the ruling conservative center-right LDP had.  The DPJ “aims to lower the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels,” whereas the LDP only proposed an 8% cut.

[I can’t imagine the climate target played much of a role in the election, given how badly the economy was doing, but I’d welcome any comments from people who know Japanese politics.]

Bloomberg News has the backstory, from a late July story, “DPJ to Raise Target for Japan’s Greenhouse-Gas Cuts” on one of the party leaders, Katsuya Okada (pictured above):

“Japanese people, especially in the business circle, say our target is tough,” Okada, 55, said in a July 24 interview at party headquarters in Tokyo. “But internationally speaking, our number is more in line with the trend as the European Union seeks a 20 percent cut and the Group of Eight countries agreed on an 80 percent cut by 2050.”

The DPJ is seeking to oust Aso’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for all but 10 months since 1955. Okada said his party wants environmental policy to be a “pillar” of economic growth.

Okada said a DPJ government will push the 25 percent target in a new international climate change treaty. Almost 200 countries are seeking to meet a December deadline in Copenhagen for an accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Under the Kyoto agreement, Japan pledged to cut emissions by 6 percent from the 1990 level by 2012. Instead, they’ve risen 8.7 percent since then.

Keidanren, Japan’s biggest business lobby, has said it opposes any cut bigger than 6 percent. The lobby group in May suggested a 4 percent increase from the 1990 level, calling it the “most rational goal” in terms of fairness, viability and the financial burden on consumers.

Aso’s proposal is an “extremely tough goal” for Japanese industries, Keidanren head Fujio Mitarai said in June.

Okada said the DPJ will seek legislation that would cap emissions and establish a trading system for pollution permits, along with promoting of alternative energy and a carbon tax. Such policies will give rise to new industries as Japan’s population declines and faces competitions from China and India.

“The LDP has been taking a lot of measures to create short-term demand,” Okada said. “But what’s important is investment for the future, and climate change provides a big opportunity to invite new investment and raise industries.”

Japan already uses energy more efficiently than any other country, according to the International Energy Agency. The U.S. required twice as much energy to produce a unit of gross domestic product in 2006, China needed more than eight times, and Russia about 17 times, agency data show.

The DPJ wants to persuade the U.S., China and India to join the new framework to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Okada said he’s interested whether the U.S. Senate will approve President Barack Obama’s climate bill, which cleared the Congress in June.

Okada left the ruling party in 1993 to participate in the coalition government that briefly ousted the LDP later that year. He said the next general election will be an “historic event.”

Let’s hope the DPJ follow through on their promise.  Certainly that target is more in line with the science (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 8: The U.S. needs a tougher 2020 GHG emissions target“).

Since we don’t have a parliamentary form of government — and since we have the filibuster “rule” in the Senate, which may ultimately prove our nation’s (and the world’s) undoing — we don’t get the automatic adoption of the policies advanced by the winning party in an election.  Of course, Obama only campaigned on returning to 1990 levels by 2020 — though there is no apples-to-apples comparison between Obama’s target for 2020 and the 4% target in the House bill, as I explain here.

We also didn’t sign on to Kyoto, which should have brought Japanese emissions below 1990 levels by this time (making a tougher 2020 target in theory easier for them to adopt).  That said, as of 2007, Japan’s emisisons are up 8% since 1990, so achieving a 25% reduction by 2020 won’t be easy, especially given how relatively efficient and low-carbon their economy already is.

But the bottom line is that we have a government in Japan that believes in stronger climate action.  And that should be quite helpful in the months leading up to the big international negotiations in Copenhagen — and in the months that follow where the real deal will be hammered out.

UPDATE:  Matt Dernoga, Campaign Director of UMD for Clean Energy, has more thoughts here.

8 Responses to Japanese opposition easily wins elections — running on a much stronger climate target

  1. bblack says:

    Wow, I can’t believe it, is it possible???

  2. TechSlice says:

    It seems it’s a good year for democrats world wide.

  3. Peter Wood says:

    This is great news. If the DPJ shows some leadership and gets Japan to commit to a 25% reduction on 1990 levels then a better outcome at Copenhagen is much more likely.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The target has to be understood as very bold.

    – Already in 1990, Japan was the world most energy efficient nation in the world.
    – Unlike the US Japan is an exporter of energy intensive products. For this reason, a substantial share of its emissions stems from the consumption of such products abroad.
    – Japan does not have nationally a large and cheap potential for CO2 emission reductions.

    To match this level of effort, the US would have to reduce emissions by 30% compared to 1990 and the EU by 30% compared to 2005 (to discount for the central European “hot air” from the post communist era).

  5. Chris Winter says:

    Joe wrote:

    “[I can’t imagine the climate target played much of a role in the election, given how badly the economy was doing, but I’d welcome any comments from people who know Japanese politics.]”

    That would probably be James Annan.

  6. TokyoTom says:

    Joe, the higher targets promised by the DPJ – if they actually affirm them post-election – would certainly add impetus to the Copenhagen discussions, but besides that, who knows?

    The Japanese people are seriously concerned about ongoing climate change and have a hard time believing that there are any honest climate science “skeptics” (as opposed to policy skeptics) in the U.S. Japan continues to experience crazy weather phenomena, such as increasingly heavy and sudden rain events, which are proving to be killers and very costly, and even tornadoes, which have not been recorded before. So there is considerable public support on this issue – but for the bad economy.

    Japan`s economy, already the most energy-efficient in the world (in part because much industrial production has been outsourced), continues to be in the doldrums, so carbon cuts will be more painful here than elsewhere. If cap and trade is the chosen course, this would further dampen domestic industry. Given the enormous government debt and looming pension shortfalls, the government has little leeway to subsidize new technology. If the DPJ were smart, they might decide that carbon taxes make more sense, as the government has looming fiscal needs; I suspect this will sorely tempt them. There is also considerable room for improvement in consumer power demand, that could be gained by making “smart meters” and marginal cost pricing available to consumers.

    Contrary to Matt Dernoga, I think that because China is immediately upstream of Japan and much of China`s polluted air falls on Japan, the Japanese feel pressure to get the Copenhagen process moving, so that the Chinese will feel the need to control their carbon emissions sooner – and to buy more efficient (and costly) control technology from Japan.

  7. Kt D says:

    It’s kind of amazing that the LDP was able to maintain power, especially for that long. And finally, after much tension amongst the Japanese people over the suffering economy, the DJP has kicked the LDP off of center-stage. I know I am, and I am sure nearly all of the Japanese people are, curious to see if the DJP will come through on its election promises of transparency, domestic concerns and economic (as well as, like you mentioned, environmental) reorganization.
    There is a short, but relevant video on the party’s recent success and differing viewpoints at It’s certainly worth watching if you have a few minutes:

  8. apeescape says:

    Joe, the leader of the DPJ is Yukio Hatoyama. Okada was Secretary General before the election and now he is the foreign minister. The current Sec. Gen. is Ichiro Ozawa. Hatoyama just announced that he plans to stick to the 25% target like he did in their manifesto.

    [JR: Thanks. I heard that. Will update.]