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Japan’s contribution to climate change

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Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has taken the climate change world by storm in pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent in the next 10 years from 1990 levels.  There is however one big condition -- if other major polluters do the same – “We will seek to build an international framework that involves all major countries and is fair and realistic.”

Is Hatoyama on the right track?


Japanese bureaucrats are incensed that Hatoyama should make such a commitment without consulting them.  How could a popularly and democratically elected politician make such a promise without having the agreement of bureaucrats which have ruled the country in collusion with the business sector for over 50 years?  For its part, the business sector is also upset.  They like to argue that Japan is already very energy efficient, and that such cuts would endanger many jobs and Japan’s competitiveness. 

While Japan might be relatively efficient in its energy use, it does not have a record of keeping its promises, as highlighted in the OECD’s recent economic survey.  Under the Kyoto Protocol, it committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 6% relative to 1990.  But in 2008, its emissions hit a record, putting the country 16 percent above the Kyoto protocol targets.  Indeed, its emissions per capita have risen faster than the OECD average since 1990.

It is perhaps not surprising that Japan has been missing these targets.  It has mainly relied on so-called voluntary measures.  As the OECD argues, achieving these targets requires instruments with greater bite, like “market-based instruments” which raise the cost of energy or set quantitative limits on carbon emissions.  The OECD argues most strongly for a “cap-and-trade” system which would limit the quantity of carbon emissions.  These function like carbon vouchers which give you the right to pollute a certain amount.  These vouchers could be auctioned, providing the impoverished Japanese government with much needed revenue.

To look more seriously at Japan’s climate change situation, it may be best to forget all this noise, and look at its population outlook.  A dramatically declining population may hold the answer to Japan’s greenhouse has emissions.  After all, economic recession saw a 6 per cent decline in greenhouse gas emissions in 2008!

According to Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan’s population started declining in 2005, when it was around 128 million.  By the year 2055, they estimate that it could have fallen to 90 million, the same level as 1955 – that would make a century of just up and down!  And with a much older nation to boot.  By 2055, some 41 per cent of the Japanese population could be 65 or over, compared with 23 per cent today, and 5 per cent in 1955.  The average age of the Japanese nation might be 55 years in 2005, against 45 today.

The longer term prospects become even worse, in part because males are disappearing even faster than females.  Today, Japanese men number 62 million compared with 65 million women.  By 2055, we could have just 43 million Japanese men against 47 million women, as more and more women live longer than men. 

In a 2002 report, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research even made projections out to the year 2100.  Under its “medium variant” scenario, Japanese population in 2100 would fall to 64 million (this figure should really be shaved to 58 million, because their 2055 figure is 6 million higher than the most recent version).  And their “low variant” scenario is 46 million (or once again arguably 40 million!).  Interestingly, this compares with a Japanese population of 40 million in 1890, just a few decades after the black ships of Commodore Perry opened Japan to the rest of the world.     

In fact, it is even calculated that by the year 2900, the Japanese population would be extinct, based on the assumption of both fertility and mortality constant at the level of 2006!

These figures should of course be interpreted carefully.  But it goes without saying that as Japan’s population gradually dwindles away, its greenhouse emissions will also decline.  Japan will thus make a major contribution in the world’s fight against climate change.

May be Hatoyama is on the right track after all! 



OECD Economic Survey of Japan 2009.


Population Statistics of Japan, 2008

National Institute of Population and Social Security Research