Domestic global-warming debate is heating up as the Diet discusses a bill to revise the nation’s global-warming prevention law and prepares to approve the Kyoto climate accord for ratification. The centerpiece of this law will be a new national scheme — a Kyoto Objective Achievement Plan — to cut greenhouse gas emissions in line with Japan’s Kyoto Protocol target, 6 percent of 1990 levels during the period 2008 to 2012.

This blueprint is crucial to putting Japan on the right track to paring greenhouse gas emissions. Cabinet ministers gave the scheme the nod in March at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence — while chauffeurs kept their cars idling outside.

Sadly, the plan sorely lacks bite as well as public support. While long on ideas, it is short on incentives and implementation details — both essential for reducing emissions. Overall the plan reads less like a recipe for meeting international commitments and more like a desperate government wish list.

First, it does not go far enough. Laudably it outlines greenhouse gas-cut targets for various sectors — allowing a 17-percent jump for the transportation sector while calling for respective 7- and 2-percent cuts on industrial and household emissions. It also proposes some means to reach these ends. For instance, it asks families to save energy by trimming daily showers by a minute and television watching by an hour daily, and urges them to spend more time together in the same room.

At the office, it suggests that people make fewer copies and turn off the lights at lunchtime, among other things. Furthermore, it budgets in emission reductions from a daylight-savings program — shifting clocks forward and backward with the seasons to save energy — but no such plan is yet in the pipeline. Without incentives, only a conscientious few will shorten television and shower time, or switch off the office lights when slipping out for lunch.

Second, actual domestic cuts total 4.4 percent of the 6 percent required, with the bulk of the cuts — nearly 90 percent — to be amassed by using controversial “sinks,” or the carbon-absorbing properties of forests. The remaining 1.6 percent is ostensibly to come from “Kyoto Mechanisms” that permit countries to accrue credits via emission-reduction projects abroad or by buying foreign credits.

A glaring omission in the plan is the role of economic instruments. Industry opposition and interministry differences of opinion effectively have kept any carbon-tax or emissions-trading initiative from making it into the scheme.

Tax incentives and domestic-emission trading regimes are hot topics around the world. A comprehensive review by an independent U.S. think tank of studies on European climate-change levies concluded that the implementation of such taxes can help slow climate change without damaging economies. One is already functioning in Britain.

While industry appeared largely unperturbed by the new scheme, civic groups slammed it as the product of shady back-room bureaucratic bargaining. Government officials say the scheme and arithmetic is the result of complicated models. Yet they refuse to elaborate in detail. This obscure math only fans citizen fears that the scheme will not deliver real reductions.

What is clear is that government figures are premised on boosting nuclear power by 30 percent over current levels as well as having up to 13 new nuclear power plants on line by 2012. Given current public sentiment,this seems improbable.

The new outline was made necessary because its predecessors have banked on voluntary efforts — not incentives — and failed. This fatal flaw is a hallmark of the new plan as well. No mechanism exists to guarantee cuts of any kind, nor even to require that companies keep tabs on emissions, let alone report or make them public.

Shortfalls aside, though, the plan does have a few bright spots. The scheme’s flexibility may be its one redeeming factor. It is to be reviewed in 2004 and again in 2007. If it is found lacking, the government is to up the ante with stiffer measures. Another plus is simply that it shows Japan’s commitment to the protocol, which, lest we forget, was on the brink of irrelevance a year ago, following U.S. rejection of the pact.

These problems may come into sharper relief during Diet debate as legislators race to ratify the accord by early June so that it has a chance of taking effect at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg from late August. Even with the protocol ratified, the fact remains that current policy postpones action at the peril of leaving industry and society with an insurmountable burden in the years ahead.

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