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Japan’s environmental leadership

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Japan’s bureaucrats and business leaders were aghast when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced at the United Nations in September this year that Japan was going to cut its carbon emissions by 25 per cent between 1990 and 2020.  How could a democratically elected Prime Minister do such a thing without first getting approval from the bureaucrats?  And won’t this compromise Japan’s fragile business competitiveness?

In fact, this was an early example of the international leadership of the Hatoyama administration.  Hatoyama’s campaign for an East Asian Community is further evidence of new Japanese leadership.

Hatoyama’s initiative may be having some effect.  Other countries like the US, China, Brazil and Korea are now following suit, having also announced carbon reduction targets.  Thus, Japan may have made an important contribution to the upcoming Copenhagen negotiations on a Kyoto successor.  This is also good news because Hatoyama’s commitment was based on the premise of ambitious targets being adopted by all major countries.  The Hatoyama initiative goes further, with commitments of financial and technical support for developing countries. 

But can Japan actually achieve this 25 per cent reduction?  According to environment minister Sakihito Ozawa, yes indeed.  In their daily life, Japanese citizens can make energy savings through double windows, solar panels and the like.  Copenhagen also provides inspiration for local initiatives – some 30 per cent of its commuting people use bicycles!  Can you imagine 32 million Tokyoites pedaling to work?

In fact, some 80 per cent of Japan’s carbon emissions come from business and industry.  But even here, energy savings technologies are an immense business opportunity, as they were for Japanese business after the oil shocks.  As Japan looks for new sources of growth, the revitalization of green industries could be a competitive advantage for the country.

The Japanese government is hard at work on the implementation of Hatoyama’s initiative.  It is supporting the necessary budget, and it has created a ministerial committee for climate change which is working on, amongst other things, a cap and trade emissions scheme.  What’s more, the minister believes that it is necessary to impose a tax of fossil fuels.

This all sounds great, but …

Until the current crisis knocked the stuffing out of the economy, Japan’s carbon emissions were running way above their Kyoto commitment – in part, because they only had a voluntary scheme for curbing emissions from business and industry.  Will the current government be able to force a cap and trade system on business, at a time when the economy is lifeless and a new stimulus package had to be rushed through?  With public debt heading quickly towards 200 per cent of GDP, how can the government afford its green initiatives?

More fundamentally, the government’s credibility as a champion of the environment seems undermined by the fact that economic partnership agreements with Chile, the Philippines and Thailand contain provisions whereby these countries will accept duty free “export” to them from Japan of chemical and toxic wastes.  While these agreements were negotiated under the previous government, they are no way to treat developing country partners.