Last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet announced Japan would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2030, based on 2013 levels. The plan will be presented to delegates at a United Nations conference on climate change in Paris this December.
The goal is strongly supported by Japanese utilities and powerful business lobbyists, but has been slammed by domestic and international experts as falling far short of what is needed, even as Japan itself feels the impact of a warming planet.
What, exactly, does last week’s announcement about reducing greenhouse gases mean for Japan?
It means Japan will commit to reduce, in 15 years, emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 26 percent compared to its level of emissions in 2013, which amounted to 1.408 billion tons. The reductions are expected to be made through a combination of policy measures and technological developments.
Why is this goal being criticized?
There are several reasons. From a scientific viewpoint, climatologists have warned that unless the average global rise in temperature can be kept under 2 degrees, the Earth could reach a tipping point where climate change would become irreversible.
The science uses the 1990 emissions levels as the base for estimating the reduction ratios needed to offer the greatest possibility of keeping the temperature rise under 2 degrees by midcentury. The most proactive governments base their emissions targets on calculations that use 1990 as the base year. This produces cuts that are larger than those based on later years.
The second reason is political. As the initiator of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first internationally binding agreement to tackle greenhouse gases, and given Japan’s international reputation as a leader in environmental technologies, the international community had long counted on the Japanese government to continue showing leadership on the issue.
Last week’s announcement merely marked the formal decision on a plan that had been in the works for months, and one that had been roundly criticized.
In an opinion piece for Kyodo News at the end of April, John Prescott, a former British deputy prime minister who was at the Kyoto Protocol conference, said a 26 percent reduction by 2030 based on 2013 levels amounted to only a 17 percent reduction in terms of 1990 levels, and that announcing such a target would put Japan’s international climate leadership in doubt and raise questions about its commitment to multilateralism.
Nongovernmental organizations were even more critical. In a letter to Abe, Wael Hmaidan, executive director of Climate Action Network International, an umbrella group of 900 climate and environment-related NGOs, said the 26 percent target based on 2013 levels represented “sleight of hand” by Japan, and that by failing to send a strong message internationally on its commitment to reduce emissions, Tokyo’s ideas on how to come to an agreement at the Paris conference in December will fall on deaf ears.
In Japan, the Kiko Network, one of the country’s oldest and largest groups dedicated to climate change issues, also criticized the target, saying it merely left the burden of dealing with climate change to the next generation. The group also said it could not be linked to the government’s own goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
What reduction targets have other countries put forward at the Paris conference?
The European Union has announced an economy-wide target involving a cut of at least 40 percent in domestic greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2030.
The United States has a target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 (equivalent to between 14 and 17 percent below 1990 levels).
China is expected to make an announcement about its goals for the Paris conference soon, but said last November its goal was to see its carbon dioxide emissions peak by 2030 at the latest, and that it aimed to have nonfossil fuel energy supplying 20 percent of its total primary energy supply.
Brazil pledged to reduce its emissions by between 36.1 percent and 38.9 percent in 2020 compared to business-as-usual (BAU) emissions.
What climate change impacts have already been noticed in Japan?
Compiling and translating data from the Meteorological Agency and Japanese and foreign climate experts, a WWF report released in 2008 noted that the mean annual temperature in Japan had increased by 1 degree over the past century overall, but that average winter temperatures in Hokkaido had increased by 1.3 degrees.
Significant reductions in snowfall nationwide, as well as hotter days and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods, were also noted.
What predictions are being made about the future impact of climate change in Japan, regardless of emissions goals?
A 2013 Environment Ministry report suggested the average temperature could rise between 2.1 and 4 degrees by the end of this century, compared with the 1980-1999 period.
The report also noted that areas with a suitable temperature for coral will shift northward but that increased acidification in the ocean means the habitat for tropical and subtropical corals around Japan could decrease by half by 2030 and disappear completely by 2040.
As for food supply, the ministry said, warmer temperatures mean yields of irrigated rice will increase (especially in areas like Hokkaido) but that the quality could decrease.
The WWF report, by contrast, sees a temperature increase of two to three degrees over the next century. This means higher precipitation, especially during the summer months, and an increase in days with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees.