National | ANALYSIS

Japan a virtual nonentity at Paris climate talks

by Daisuke Yamamoto

Kyodo

As people across the world witnessed the birth of a landmark international agreement on combating global warming, Japan remained almost invisible throughout the two weeks of high-stakes negotiations at the U.N. climate talks on the outskirts of Paris.

Japan’s failure to display a meaningful role in advancing the talks as the world’s fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide hints at a general lack of interest among policymakers in Tokyo in tackling climate change in earnest.

Questions remain over whether Japan can keep a passive stance on an issue that has come to command so much global attention and prompted strong calls for immediate action, including in Japan, where dozens of coal-fired power plants are being planned in light of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster that led to the shutdown of almost all commercial reactors over safety concerns.

Appearing before other national leaders who descended on the French capital for the climate talks’ opening late last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged them to come to an agreement “to show the solidarity of the international community.”

Abe’s call for an agreement, however, did not quite translate into strong public diplomacy. A press briefing by a Japanese official on the opening day, held to explain Abe’s speech, turned out to be the only news conference for the international media held by the Japanese delegation during the 13-day conference, which ended Saturday.

The Paris talks put the spotlight on a group of developed and developing countries called a “high-ambition coalition” that pushed for an ambitious agreement. The alliance, which included the European Union and low-lying island countries such as the Marshall Islands, gained prominence day by day, with such major powers as the United States and Brazil joining.

As the group’s membership expanded to more than 100 nations, Japan waited until the final day of the conference to join. “We weren’t asked to join,” a Japanese delegate said.

Japan only joined when the negotiations were almost over. A Japanese official said Environment Minister Tamayo Marukawa, who participated in the talks in the final week, “exhibited her leadership.”

Japan also did not win any “Fossil of the Day” award this year for the first time since the award was created in 1999. It was given daily during U.N. climate talks by a coalition of more than 900 environmental groups worldwide, to shame a recipient into contributing to negotiations in a more meaningful way.

Kimiko Hirata, international director of Kyoto-based environmental group Kiko Network, said because the award is often given to a country to encourage it to make contributions, the fact that Japan did not receive any speaks volumes about the lack of influence Japan wielded over the talks.

Japanese officials say the country was working hard behind the scenes to secure an agreement that reflects its positions and interests as much as possible. Japanese negotiators did succeed in pushing back on the proposed entry-into-force provision of the agreement by winning back language they thought was important to them.

Japan wants to make sure that major greenhouse gas emitters such as China are bound by the agreement, so Japanese officials were upset when an early draft dropped a reference to the percentage of global emissions accounted for by participating countries as a condition for the accord’s entry into force.

After Marukawa publicly lodged a protest during a ministerial-level meeting, the reference to emissions was restored in the next draft and was retained in the accord. The Paris Agreement will enter into force after at least 55 nations accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified it.

It is widely understood that Japan feared if the entry into force only concerned the number of countries that have ratified the accord, Japan could possibly be placed at a disadvantage in case it ratified it but a major emitter such as China or the United States did not.

“It has certainly made it easier” to sell the accord to business leaders and politicians back home, a senior Japanese negotiator beamed.

The latest accord is the first universal agreement on reining in global warming to avert more serious typhoons, droughts, floods and rising seas, and seeks to steer the world away from its reliance on oil, gas and coal.

A provision in the agreement obliging countries to take domestic measures to achieve their emissions-cut targets is expected to pile pressure on Japan to work harder to meet its own target of slashing emissions from 2013 levels by 26 percent by 2030.

Marukawa suggested after the agreement’s adoption late Saturday that the government intends to boost its efforts to curb emissions, saying it will “swiftly and steadily work on crafting a basic plan for fighting global warming.”

Environmental activists hope the new accord will nudge the government toward rethinking its policy of relying heavily on coal-fired plants to power the country by allowing more to be built.

“The Paris Agreement will force Japan to fundamentally change its reliance on fossil fuels like coal for power. Japan can’t take measures against global warming in line with the agreement without converting its energy policy,” said Mie Asaoka, lawyer and head of Kiko Network, who took part in previous U.N. climate talks as a nongovernmental member of the Japanese delegation.