Japan continues to lag behind in international efforts to curb emissions of greenhouse gases to combat climate change. The government, which remains unable to decide on a new medium-term target for cuts in the nation’s emissions by citing uncertainty over Japan’s nuclear power generation, needs to come up with ambitious plans that match those by other industrialized economies.

By the end of March, 33 of the countries taking part in talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change submitted their plans for reducing emissions beyond 2020. For the goal of agreeing on a new framework of international efforts to fight global warming at the COP21 conference in Paris at the end of this year, participants in the negotiations have been urged to file their plans if they’re ready. The 33 nations — the United States, European Union member states, Russia, Norway, Switzerland and Mexico — account for roughly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Japan, the world’s fifth-largest emitter, is not ready yet. Discussions on the nation’s targets for reducing its emissions have been slow as its nuclear power plants remain mostly idled following the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant. The government has said it is unable to make commitments on cuts to emissions until it has a clear picture of nuclear power — which does not emit carbon dioxide in power generation — in the energy mix. Power generation accounts for roughly 40 percent of Japan’s emissions.

This position illustrates how Japan’s climate change policy has relied heavily on nuclear power, which accounted for roughly 30 percent of electricity generation prior to the 2011 disaster, and falls short on such efforts as improving energy efficiency and the introduction of renewable sources. The nation’s emissions have been on the increase as power companies fired up more thermal power plants to make up for shutdowns of nuclear power plants. Emissions in fiscal 2013 rose 1.6 percent from the previous year to a record amount since the government started keeping relevant data in 1990.

While the Abe administration seeks to restart idled nuclear reactors once they have cleared safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, it has also given the go-ahead for the power firms’ plans to build new coal-fired thermal power plants. Such plants would emit more carbon dioxide than other types of thermal power plants, and their construction in large numbers — which would be in operation for 40 to 50 years to come — could put the government’s long-term target of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 in doubt.

The government has recently started discussing Japan’s energy mix in 2030 at a panel of experts at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and will use its conclusion as the basis for the emissions-reduction plan to be compiled by this summer. Despite the public’s ongoing safety concerns in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the government plans to have nuclear power account for a significant portion of the energy mix, while it continues to balk at setting ambitious targets for increasing the share of renewable sources — which accounted for only about 10 percent of power generation in 2013, including hydraulic power that supplies about 8 percent of the total.

Among the countries that have submitted their targets by the end of March, the U.S. says it plans to reduce its emissions 26-28 percent from the 2005 levels by 2025, while the EU’s target calls for a 40 percent cut from the 1990 levels by 2030.

The government should aim for ambitious plans to cut Japan’s emissions that would compare favorably with the targets set by other advanced economies. What appears to permeate discussions on the issue in this country is the assumption that the current socioeconomic structure will not fundamentally change — and that energy consumption will rise if the economy grows, thereby increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. What’s needed is a perspective from the other way around — to change the social and economic structures in ways that enable major emissions cuts and still achieve economic growth. Otherwise, it would be difficult to set credible targets to substantially reduce emissions of global warming gases.

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