A New Japan

Climate Policy After the Crisis

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A New Japan

Climate Policy After the Crisis

The earthquake that hit Japan was a tragedy. But it could still prod the country toward a solid climate change policy.

The March 11 Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami and nuclear crisis has already taken a serious toll on the Japanese people, and the recovery efforts are sure to vex the country’s policymakers for years to come. But one sometimes overlooked issue following the disaster is climate change.

It’s clear that the country stands at a crossroads.

The Kyoto Protocol, of which Japan is a signatory, expires at the end of 2012. However, no legal instrument currently exists to replace it, despite efforts over the past four years by climate negotiators to come up with something.

As things stand, the Protocol only compels countries accounting for about 40 percent of global annual emissions to engage in mitigation. This means that a simple extension of the agreement would allow the United States and emerging economies such as China and India to continue without any obligations.

Unsurprisingly, bureaucrats in Tokyo have little appetite for such a treaty, instead favouring what they see as a fair and effective international framework in which all major emitters—developed and emerging—would participate. Following the electoral victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in August 2009, Japan added a carrot to its climate diplomacy, by pledging a 25 percent cut in emissions by 2020 compared with 1990 if all major emitters agreed to its conditions. However, the gulf between negotiating parties has proved too large, leaving Japan with no real pledge for the post-2012 period.

It’s against this backdrop that Japan struck its now notorious position last December at the annual two-week United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties in Cancún.

The meeting started out as a low-key affair to give delegates the chance to make cautious small-scale steps in a constructive direction following the post-Copenhagen funk. But on day one, Japan dropped a bombshell, announcing in stern terms that it would under no circumstances agree to an extension of the Protocol. Japan was showered with criticism for its position. Indeed, even when negotiators privately agreed that Tokyo’s stance was understandable, they viewed such a statement from the world’s second-largest developed economy as unconstructive.

During the next two weeks, Japanese negotiators emphasized that their stance on the extension of the Protocol wouldn’t affect the country’s dedication to engaging in mitigation activities, even in the absence of a post-2012 treaty. And, thanks to significant concessions by a number of parties, the conference managed to conclude to thunderous applause that important progress had been made on a number of long-standing issues.

So, what to make of Japan’s position? Any country’s commitment to mitigating climate change can be gauged by looking at two things: its mid-term pledge and the policy package deployed domestically to achieve it.

As getting all major emitters to agree over the next couple of years to a single instrument binding them all to comparable emissions cuts appears to be unrealistic, Japan still essentially has no mid-term pledge. The announcement by Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration last December over plans for cap-and-trade, a carbon tax and a feed-in tariff for renewable forms of energy, means that Japan also lacks a forceful domestic policy package. If not for the still-standing substantial commitment made by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in September 2009 pledging Japan to enhanced financial and technical assistance to developing countries, Japan’s position up to the earthquake might have been best characterized as studiously giving the cold shoulder to negotiations.

Last month’s disaster, and the ongoing nuclear crisis, has further exposed the limitations of the country’s energy policy.

Despite much media sensationalism, the threat from the nuclear disaster itself seems to be limited. Much more significant problems, though, arise from the current rigidity of the country’s energy supply, which, in the absence of a dispersed network of renewable sources of energy, means it only has fossil fuels to fall back on now that a major nuclear power plant in a single location has been taken off the grid. Indeed, national energy firm TEPCO’s temporary solutions to patch up the supply shortfall for this summer include shipping in emergency fossil fuel generators from Scotland. The limitations of the Japanese national grid mean that there will be a significant reliance on carbon-polluting forms of power generation over the short and medium term, which will make the 25 percent goal outlined by the government extremely difficult to achieve.

What will be interesting to see now is whether the floodgates that have opened for suggestions on what to do next will result in concrete actions that help with the reorientation of Japan’s energy policy towards renewables.

There will be plenty of positives if this happens, not least because it would offer some much-needed diversification for the country’s energy supplies, therefore bolstering its energy security. To help things along, the government should offer economic incentives to stimulate development in its domestic green technology sector. Japan is currently sending out less clear signals to its entrepreneurs than countries such as Britain or China, which have increased the targets of their domestic climate policy with this very goal explicitly in mind.

Also, if officials created a strong domestic policy mix, they could boost Japan’s position in international negotiations by underscoring its commitment to more than just a green form of chequebook diplomacy.

Strong action on climate change was part of the DPJ’s initial 2009 electoral manifesto. Sagging in the polls, the party desperately needs some kind of boost. Bold action on climate change and green energy would allow the country’s leaders to take the first steps toward securing something positive from an unprecedented catastrophe—for Japan and the world.


Alexandru Luta is a PhD candidate at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, specializing in Japanese climate policy. He has previously worked on the Research Programme on Natural Resources and the Environment at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.