Japan to go to bat for environment at G-7 summit

Japan is ready to step to the plate at the upcoming G-7 meeting in Denver as the environment’s cleanup hitter. Then again, it might not even take its bat off its shoulder.

Japanese officials are becoming increasingly aware that they may make little headway on environmental matters during the June 20 to 22 meeting of leaders from the major industrialized economies — the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan — and Russia. Although a document to be issued at the Denver summit will call for “reductions” of greenhouse gases — primary culprits of global warming — it may not contain the word “limitations,” which Tokyo currently is pushing for.

In addition, it is a possibility that the document will make no mention of the need for strengthened international cooperation in fighting serious maritime oil spills, as has been demanded by Japan in the wake of the January Nakhodka accident that fouled the Sea of Japan. The environment will be high on the agenda at the Denver summit, which will be immediately followed by a special session in New York of the United Nations General Assembly to review progress made on environmental protection since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.

Then in December, the more than 150 nations that signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit will gather in Kyoto to set legally binding “targets” for industrialized economies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases after 2000. The convention currently asks that the industrialized economies reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, although the step is not legally binding.

The major environmental topics that will emerge at the Denver summit are: a successful conclusion of the Kyoto conference, a proposed forest-protection treaty and a stable supply of fresh water — especially in developing countries — Japanese government officials said. Tokyo views the Denver summit as a prelude to the Kyoto conference, officially called the third U.N. Conference of the Parties to the climate-change convention, more commonly referred to as COP3.

But a draft of a document to be issued by top leaders in Denver, which was written by the U.S., caught Japanese officials, especially those at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, flat-footed. It stressed the need to forge a strong agreement in Kyoto to achieve a “meaningful, realistic and legally binding reductions” of greenhouse gas emissions, according to government sources. This is an apparent departure from the agreement at the first Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1995, which called “limitations” or “reductions” of the gases after 2000.

At the end of last year, Japan presented proposals to the secretariat of the Conference of the Parties that would allow each industrialized economy to choose between two post-2000 targets: an agreed-upon rate of reduction in national output of carbon dioxide emissions or an agreed-upon level of per capita emissions volume. The proposals drew immediate criticism from governments and environmentalists at home and abroad. They also raised doubts about whether Japan is willing to provide the leadership expected of it at COP3; the proposals would allow Japan to maintain or even increase slightly its carbon dioxide emissions after 2000 if it chooses the per capita target, since the country’s population is expected to continue growing moderately until around 2010.

The proposals were the result of a compromise between the Environment Agency, which demands a cut in Japan’s overall output of carbon dioxide, and MITI, which insists that reducing the national output is impossible. In 1995, Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions totaled 332 million tons, a record high and up 8.3 percent from 1990. Although Japan’s output of carbon dioxide is the second-largest after the U.S. among the industrialized economies, its per capita output, about 2.6 tons, is slightly less than the grouping’s average.

Earlier this year, the 15-nation European Union proposed that the industrialized economies slash their post-2000 emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 15 percent from the 1990 levels and do so by 2010. The European members of the G-7 insist on including that numerical target in a Denver summit document. But Japan and the U.S. oppose mentioning any such specific reduction figure.