Emissions on rise but bold vision for next climate pact eludes

by Tetsuji Ida

Kyodo News

This year marks the beginning of the target period under the Kyoto Protocol in which major industrial powers are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 2012.

Japan is obliged to cut emissions from 1990 levels by an average of 6 percent during the five-year period. The immediate past, however, does not set a positive tone. In the year through last March, emissions increased 6.4 percent to about 1.34 billion tons from 1.26 billion tons in the base year of fiscal 1990.

In December, advisory panels of the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry drafted a joint report arguing it would be possible to meet the emissions target if around 20 additional measures are implemented.

The report, which will serve as a basis for the government’s efforts to meet the Kyoto commitment, has been criticized by some experts.

Jusen Asuka, an environmental policy expert at Tohoku University in Sendai, doubts that the proposals, including a call on private companies to implement voluntary action plans for environmental protection, will do enough.

“It is a myth that Japanese companies are world leaders in energy-saving technology and recent research has abundantly demonstrated that there are many more ways to reduce greenhouse gases at low cost,” he said.

Asuka added it is necessary to create a system to back up companies’ efforts to adopt such low-cost technology.

The report’s three key pillars rest on initiatives to be spearheaded by industry, consumers and motorists.

Consumers, for example, are urged to avoid plastic bags distributed at supermarket checkout counters and to adopt a Cool Biz style by wearing light clothing in the summer in the workplace to cut down use of air conditioners.

These measures are projected to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 6.78 million to 10.50 million tons. However, there is scant evidence to back up the estimate and the projected reduction relies on voluntary action by the public, some critics argue.

The panels also expect industry to cut emissions voluntarily by an additional 18 million tons. The critics dispute whether this target is appropriate and some argue there is no way to verify whether businesses comply.

The report, however, was welcomed by the business community for leaving it up to industry to do whatever it can to fight climate change.

Hideaki Sekizawa, executive vice president of Nippon Steel Corp., said voluntary initiatives, as called for by the report, do not entirely lack teeth as the government is involved in assessing the progress of corporations’ environmental efforts.

“We can achieve a significant cut in emissions if the government actively exhorts all companies to pitch in,” Sekizawa said.

But the critics say panel members caved in to pressure from the business community and failed to put forward any concrete proposals for trading in emissions rights and a carbon tax, even though initiatives such as these will likely do more to reduce greenhouse gases than most other measures.

The panels also failed to explicitly call for an end to the nighttime operations of convenience stores and the introduction of daylight saving time, the critics say.

Sekizawa is skeptical of trading in emissions credits. “I have never heard anyone make a convincing case that such a system has ever been effective,” he said.

Asuka countered Sekizawa’s view, saying an increasing number of Japanese firms have begun to embrace emissions trading and even those that have expressed opposition have started to study such a system.

“Companies are aware that both their shareholders and the public will turn their backs on them if they fail (to address the environmental issue), and it is in the interests of the companies themselves to conduct discussions about how to shoulder a fair share of the burden,” Asuka said.

There is debate on whether a new global climate pact succeeding the Kyoto Protocol should include new numerical targets, such as a midterm goal of cutting emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. Nippon Steel’s Sekizawa said any goal like this would be impossible to achieve unless environmental efforts are backed by innovative new technology.

“If numerical targets are set in too hasty a manner, major emitting nations will likely refuse to meet them, resulting in a recurrence of the fiasco that marred the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.

The U.S., the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, never signed the Kyoto Protocol.