With the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change underway, Japan, the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter and third-biggest economy, made unwelcome headlines by announcing that it’s slashing its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reductions target from 25 percent to just 3.8 percent based on 2005 figures.
While countries like Canada and Australia have been dragging their feet at the talks, Japan is considered a world leader in confronting climate change, having hosted the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. But the unexpected announcement will now undoubtedly cast a shadow over the talks, increasing concern about the difficulty of reducing emissions and the feasibility of international negotiations to lead the way to achieving the cuts scientists say are needed.
“This move by Japan could have a devastating impact on the tone of discussion here in Warsaw,” Naoyuki Yamagishi, leader of the Climate and Energy Group at the WWF, said. “It could further accelerate the race to the bottom among other developed countries when the world needs decisive and immediate actions to “raise” ambition, not to “lower” ambition.”
Japan’s new target, announced by Minister of the Environment Nobuteru Ishihara in Tokyo, represents a 3.1 percent increase from 1990 if that year is used as a baseline. In contrast, the country’s previous commitment, set in 2009, sought to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.
Before the Fukushima disaster in 2011, which caused Japan to halt its nuclear power program, the government had expected to rely on nuclear power to achieve greenhouse gas reductions. In 2011 nuclear power provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity, and was expected to provide at least 40 percent by 2017.
Japan imports about 84 percent of its energy requirements, which is undesirable for economic and security reasons as well as climate ones. The current government is pushing to restart certain nuclear reactors, but the timeline is unclear. Recently both Ishihara and former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a popular national figure, spoke out against nuclear power.
“We’re down to zero nuclear; anyone doing the math will find that target impossible now,” Ishihara said after announcing the new target. He went on to say the original goal was “unrealistic in the first place.”
Climate Analytics, a think-tank, released a statement saying the shutdown of Japan’s nuclear industry cannot account for the massive degradation of ambition. According to them, replacing all nuclear production projected for 2020 with the present fossil fuel mix would reduce the original 25 percent reduction to a 17-18 percent reduction, and even a shift to coal to replace nuclear would only halve the original — far from the proposed 3.8 percent reduction.
Japan is responsible for about 4 percent of current global emissions, and the new emissions target will increase global emissions by 0.7 percent in 2020.
While China and the EU were quick to criticize Japan’s actions, Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC executive secretary, said she “understood” the problems that Japan faced following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
“I do have some understanding that Japan has been hit by several catastrophes in the past few years. My hope is that Japan understands that investment in renewable energies galvanizes investments and creates new jobs,” Figueres said.
Seemingly as compensation, Japan also announced that its public and private sectors intended to raise $16 billion by 2015 to help developing countries reduce their emissions. According to the Guardian, the aid package is thought to include supplying developing countries with “green” technologies developed by Japanese firms, including offshore wind turbines, fuel-cell vehicles, and high-tech housing insulation.
Expectations were already low for COP19, but in the days leading up to it Figueres said the meeting is a pivotal moment to advance international climate action and showcase a growing momentum to address climate change at all levels of society.
So far no major countries have announced more ambitious goals to cut emissions. Meanwhile the debate between rich and poor nations over who should cut emissions and who should pay wages on.
Su Wei, China’s lead climate negotiator at the UN talks, said “I have no way of describing my dismay” about the Japanese announcement.
That’s one thing nearly all parties at the conference can likely agree on.