Two decades after the advent of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, its namesake city is planning to commemorate the agreement this year with a number of events while moving forward with its own plan to achieve targeted greenhouse gas reductions by 2020.

But with climate experts warning that faster action is needed at the national and international levels to mitigate the worst effects of rising global temperatures, municipal efforts like Kyoto’s will need to be complemented by similar policies in neighboring urban areas to be more effective.

In December 1997, the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was hammered out during an all-night U.N. negotiator marathon. Under the agreement, the developed countries were obliged to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels with the purpose of reaching “a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” the protocol said. But there were no numerical targets provided for developing countries.

The Kyoto Protocol turned out to be one of the most controversial environmental agreements ever negotiated. The United States would opt out of the protocol after George W. Bush became president in 2000, and, politically as well as scientifically, it was internationally condemned for failing to do little, if anything, toward curbing the world’s greenhouse gases.

But the Kyoto Protocol did inspire local governments around the world, which were directly feeling the social and economic impacts of climate change in their communities in the form of severe storms, droughts, flooding and extreme cold and hot periods that damaged their economies.

The protocol challenged such local governments to formulate their own policies that were as, if not more, ambitious than whatever their national leaders were supporting, or opposing.

In Japan, Kyoto’s leaders also set their own course to combat climate change.

In 2011, a year before the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol ended, the city announced the goal of a 25 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and a 40 percent reduction by 2030, both based on 1990 levels. This would be accomplished through a number of measures, including the introduction of energy-saving technologies, better garbage disposal, recycling, and encouraging people to use public transportation.

In an update released last October, Kyoto said it was on track to meet its 2020 reduction goal. But the volume of greenhouse gas emissions in fiscal 2014, the last year for which statistics were available, was estimated at nearly 7.82 million tons, only a 0.2 percent reduction compared with the 7.83 million tons recorded in 1990.

To meet the 2020 goal, therefore, the city calculated total greenhouse gas reductions of about 1.94 million tons over a six-year period were needed. Technology improvements in electricity generation by Kansai Electric Power Co. were predicted to reduce emissions by 600,000 tons, so Kyoto drew up a policy for the remaining 1.34 million tons.

These included targets for reductions among homeowners, small businesses, heavy industries, and the transportation sectors, and policies designed to promote more energy efficient homes. They also included measures to turn Kyoto’s main streets, notorious for being dangerously jammed with smoke-belching autos and buses, increasingly over to pedestrians, and to add more environmentally friendly forms of public transportation. The goal is to have 1 in 4 autos on Kyoto’s streets become eco-friendly cars by 2020.

Other 2020 targets include increasing the number of homes with solar power from about 8,500 in 2014 to about 25,000. For Kyoto’s garbage, which reached 820,000 tons in 2000 and was reduced to 461,000 tons in 2014, the goal is a reduction to 390,000 tons by 2020, despite the huge influx of tourists over the past few years that has added, sometimes visibly, to the pile.

While Kyoto trumpets its efforts, experts say the push needs to be supported by similar policies in other, larger municipalities to promote a more ambitious national climate policy.

“Kyoto’s target may not be that impactful on its own, but it should be viewed as a stepping stone to getting Osaka and the rest of the Kansai region pursuing a common emissions target,” says Ken Sofer, a senior policy adviser at the Washington-based Center for American Progress who has written about climate politics in Japan.

He added that a regional government like Tokyo, because of its size and political and economic power, can embark on certain climate policies that other cities in Japan and elsewhere cannot without significantly risking leakage, whereby polluters move just beyond the reach of regulators.

“Unlike Tokyo, which benefits from neighboring Yokohama’s and Kanagawa (Prefecture)’s similar emissions targets, a smaller city like Kyoto will only be able to make so much progress without neighbors like Osaka putting in place their own emissions targets,” Sofer said.

Kenro Taura, executive director of Kiko Network, a Kyoto-based environmental nonprofit group working to tackle climate change locally and worldwide, gives the city’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan good marks overall. But there remain challenges ahead for further reductions, he said.

“Kyoto has announced it wants to pursue a policy of not relying on nuclear power and of emphasizing a sustainable energy policy. Whether it will be able to do that is uncertain, but decisions on energy supply will impact greenhouse gas levels,” Taura said.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

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