When Disaster Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game
Image Credit: US Navy

When Disaster Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

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Since last month, Japan’s leadership has understandably been focusing on managing the aftermath of the three-fold disaster that struck the north-east of the country. But as it grapples with the enormous projected cost of years of reconstruction efforts, one question has received much less attention: How will the crisis affect Japan’s global engagement?

The answer is more encouraging than you might think.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t genuine reasons why Japan’s leadership might be tempted to disengage, at least temporarily. After all, the total cost of the earthquake and tsunami are enormous. Estimates vary, but the World Bank has suggested it could top $235 billion, while Japan’s Cabinet Office’s has suggested $309 billion. These figures don’t even include the long-term effects of the ongoing problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the main impact on Japan’s international presence will have an economic dimension, most likely concerning Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). Indeed, the effect on ODA is already being felt. The cabinet has adopted its first $49 billion supplementary budget to finance reconstruction, but instead of issuing deficit-covering bonds, the government is reallocating funds. As part of this, ODA for FY2011 will be reduced by 10 percent, meaning an about $611 million cut. Yet while this reduction is undoubtedly significant, it’s half the figure that was originally floated, a number that would have slashed Japan’s ODA to $5.37 billion—about what it was in 1982.

Another potential casualty of the disaster could be Japan’s international engagement on climate change. Japan has been promoting nuclear power as a way of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and the government had planned by 2020 to have constructed nine new nuclear reactors. This would have allowed Japan to increase the operation ratio of its nuclear plants from 65.7 percent in FY2009 to 85 percent, making the country’s pledge to cut its CO2 emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels much more feasible.

Unsurprisingly, though, the Fukushima crisis has prompted Prime Minister Naoto Kan to state that the government will review last June’s Basic Energy Plan. Under such circumstances, it’s difficult to see how Japan can avoid downward revisions to its emissions goal, a move that could also compromise the country’s ability to play a leading international role on climate change.

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