Japan's refusal to agree to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol last week was as atypical (when was the last time Tokyo made a bold stand on an issue of international significance?) as it was refreshing (what’s the point of a global pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without the ratification of the world's two largest emitters—China and the United States?).
Tokyo's surprise announcement at the UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico may, however, be just what’s required to get delegates from Washington and Beijing (and other developing nations) to the negotiating table at what’s seen as a last-chance gathering for saving the pact due to expire in 2012.
In a candid opinion piece in the Guardian's environment blog on Friday, an Oxfam representative wrote: ‘In the corridors, there are mixed opinions as to why Japan made the uncharacteristic outburst. The most interesting one is that this could actually be the beginning of a new honesty around the architecture and legal form of the negotiations.’
While this is clutching at straws, the Japanese government (among many others, especially European) clearly recognises the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, or face the potentially devastating consequences of climate change.
Shortly after his Democratic Party of Japan swept to power last summer, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made an ambitious (but welcome) pledge to cut Japan's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 (for the record, the previous Liberal Democratic Party's medium-term target was 8 percent).
To help meet this target, the government's tax commission has reportedly come up with a strategy to implement a so-called green tax that will increase taxation rates on petroleum and coal from April of next year.
Over the long-term, higher tax rates for such high-carbon fuels are known to bring about a shift in energy demand from fossil fuels to alternative sources of power such as nuclear, wind and solar energies. But the proposed tax will also increase the short-term burden on companies and households struggling to stay afloat during these dry economic times.
The government should, therefore, also look at combining the proposed tax with other more effective approaches, such as the implementation of a binding national carbon trading scheme. Japan currently has a voluntary trial scheme in place, but this does not penalize companies that violate its rules. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is a step ahead of the central government, having launched its own legally-binding carbon trading system earlier this year.
Naturally, such schemes in other nations and regions have hit snags, but Japan can learn from the tribulations of others to implement its own effective system (and being an island nation, Japan is ideally suited to a domestic scheme).
Japan is a world leader in green technologies (if not domestic environmental policy). With a strong yen hitting exports (as well as South Korea's spanking new free trade agreement with the United States putting a frown on the faces of Japanese business leaders), a well-thought out system would provide a further incentive for Japanese companies to cut emissions and create even greener technologies, which are much in demand both at home and overseas. It would also hit heavy emitters harder in the pocket.
But if delegates in Cancun can't come to an agreement on future reduction targets, any independent Japanese efforts could well be in vain.