OSAKA — Prime Minister Taro Aso’s announcement Wednesday that Japan will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 appears to have pleased nobody.
Criticism immediately came from those who called the figure scientifically invalid and too low to make a difference, and those who feared it was too high and would impose huge cost burdens on Japanese consumers and businesses.
Attention is now turning to whether it will influence nations still discussing their own midterm goals — especially the United States and China — which account for more than 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In December, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to create a post-Kyoto Protocol treaty for reducing greenhouse gases between 2013 and 2020.
“The 15 percent target is outrageous. It’s not constructive for reaching an international deal on stringent midterm targets at Copenhagen,” Yurika Ayukawa, a Japanese representative for Greenpeace International, said from Bonn, where she’s attending a climate change meeting. “In fact, it only cuts Japan’s greenhouse gases by 8 percent below 1990 levels, not enough to avert a rise in temperature of 3 degrees and a climate catastrophe for Japan by century’s end.”
Business leaders, however, call the target too ambitious.
“We are forced to say that this is an extremely harsh target for Japan, even compared with Europe and the United States,” Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) said in a prepared statement after Aso’s speech.
“This is a heavy decision that will affect both the Japanese people and Japanese businesses over the coming decades. The government should work to promote understanding of the burden this target will impose on individuals and corporations, and work for concrete measures regarding alternate energy,” Shosuke Mori, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, also said in a prepared statement.
Both Mitarai and Mori called on the government to ensure that all major green house gas emitting nations, a reference to the U.S., China and India in particular, make commitments in a Copenhagen agreement.
Wednesday’s announcement by Aso put an end to weeks of domestic and international pressure over the issue. On the one hand, environmental NGOs pressured Japan to announce at least a 25 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels.
That figure was strongly opposed by Nippon Keidanren and the FEPC, which wanted a 4 percent increase.
But Environment Minister Tetsuo Saito warned that accepting an increase would invite strong international criticism at Copenhagen later this year.
The FEPC, which consists of nine major utilities, emphasized that securing safe and stable energy supplies was of primary importance, and that renewable energy technologies aren’t in a position to replace coal and natural gas. Within Nippon Keidanren, steel firms in particular lobbied against the 25 percent target.
In April, the Environment Ministry announced that in fiscal 2007, 166 enterprises were responsible for 50 percent of Japan’s 1.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Among them, 88 electric stations accounted for 30 percent and 78 factories for the other 20 percent. The top 10 polluters included facilities belonging to three utilities, three steel makers and Sumitomo Metals Industries, Ltd. Together, they were responsible for more than 10 percent of Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions that year.
Japanese NGOs raised the stakes in a public-relations battle with Aso and corporate leaders last week at the U.N.-sponsored climate change talks taking place in Bonn.
They ran an ad in the Financial Times newspaper announcing that an international polling company had found that 63 percent of Japanese voters supported cutting emissions by 25 percent or more, and 61 percent said ambitious reduction targets would help the economy.
“This survey shows the predictions of Aso and Nippon Keidanren were mistaken,” said Ricken Patel of the environmental NGO Avaaz when the survey results were released.
Japan’s corporate leaders have warned that a high reduction target will put a burden on consumers they don’t want. Domestic print and broadcast media quickly responded with their own polls showing public concern over the increased financial burden of high targets.
But the NGOs retorted by saying the cost of doing nothing will likely be greater. According to a study by academics, including the National Institute for Environmental Studies and Ibaraki University, released just before the conference, the cost to Japan in weather-related damage might reach ¥17 trillion by the end of the century if the world refuses to act against global warming.
The NGO ad had an immediate effect internationally, though, as U.N. delegates, led by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, began calling on Japan to announce an ambitious target.
The debate over reduction percentages, when to achieve them and which year, 1990 or 2005, to set as the baseline, reflects the volatile international politics of climate change. But politics, as proponents of strong targets will point out, are becoming divorced from scientific reality.
A 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the main U.N.-mandated body of scientific experts studying the issue, advised that to maintain worldwide carbon dioxide levels at between 450 to 500 parts per million and thus prevent temperature rises leading to climate catastrophes, the developed countries, as a group, should reduce their total greenhouse gas emissions by between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020, and then by between 80 percent and 95 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels, even if the developing countries make substantial reductions.
Greenhouse gas concentrations worldwide were 375 ppm in 2005. In the worst case scenario, the scientists said, the concentrations would rise to 990 ppm by 2100.
Last September, IPCC Vice Chairman Jean-Pascal van Ypersele added that even if developed countries achieved an 80 percent to 95 percent cut by 2050, the average global temperature would still rise between 2 and 2.4 degrees, which is above the level at which experts believe the worst impacts of climate change can be avoided.