Japan pledges to raise carbon emissions, instead of cutting them

Jeremy Hance
November 18, 2013

Japan's decision to weaken carbon emissions target a 'slap in the face' to poor countries.

In 2009, Japan pledged to cut its carbon emissions by 25 percent based on 1990 levels within 11 years. Four years later—including a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima—and Japan has reset its goal with a new target to cut emissions by 3.8 percent based on 2005 levels at the UN Climate Summit in Warsaw, Poland. But, the new target, which received widespread condemnation when announced on Friday, actually results in a 3.1 percent rise in emissions when viewed from the widely-accepted 1990 baseline.

"The new target is based on zero nuclear power in the future. We have to lower our ambition level," said Hiroshi Minami, Japan's delegate at the 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Since the meltdown at Fukushima, Japan has shuttered all 50 of its nuclear power plants and largely turned to importing fossil fuels to make up the difference. Before Fukushima, nuclear power made up nearly a third of Japan's energy mix, and the country had expected to push that even further; while the Japanese government still hopes to reopen some of its nuclear power plants, there is no timeline in place.

Despite Japan's nuclear issues, many nations were quick to criticize the world's third largest economy for backtracking so far.

"The announcement represents a huge step backwards in the global effort to hold warming below the essential 1.5-2 degrees celsius threshold, and puts our populations at great risk," reads a statement by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of 44 island-states that are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. "This is neither the time nor the place to be backtracking on commitments. Developed countries have committed to taking the lead and must do so as we work to peak global emissions this decade and ink a new global agreement in 2015."

An anti-nuclear power rally in Japan. Photo by: Public Domain.
An anti-nuclear power rally in Japan. Photo by: Public Domain.

In fact, an analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a group of independent scientists, found that the closing of Japan's nuclear power plants couldn't account fully for the drastic shift in Japan's pledge. According to them, even if Japan replaced all of its nuclear energy with coal—the world's most carbon intensive fuel source—the country could still hit a nine percent CO2 emissions reduction by 2020.

Japan is the world fifth largest CO2 emitter and is generally responsible for around 3-4 percent of global CO2 emissions. Until now it has largely been viewed as one of the most ambitious wealthy nations in terms of climate action, but its move on Friday won it the little-coveted Fossil of the Day, an award that goes to the nations viewed as most obstructive at climate talks.

"To add insult to injury [Japan] is trying to hide weak ambition behind strong rhetoric," writes the Climate Action Network which gives out the ironic awards.

But the strongest condemnation came from Kelly Dent with Oxfam, who called Japan's new goal "a slap in the face for poor countries who are right now struggling to cope with changes to their climate, and who will face yet more extreme and unpredictable weather in the future."

Japan's announcement comes close on the heels after Australia revealed it was also weakening its target. Observers at the meetings say this backtracking by wealthy countries could threaten to undercut progress in Warsaw even as the meeting has been overshadowed by the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The Filipino delegate, Naderev 'Yeb' Saño, has gone on hunger strike at the meeting until "until a meaningful outcome is in sight."

Typhoon Haiyan was the most intense tropical storm to make landfall yet recorded. Scientists say climate change is likely to increase the intensity (including both wind speed and rainfall) of tropical storms due to warmer sub-surface seas, and may already be doing so. In addition, rising sea levels means greater storm surges with correspondingly more damages and loss-of-life.

Nations worldwide have pledged to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but experts say we are moving too slowly to make good on this goal. In recent years, there has been a constant call for nations to make deeper emissions cuts by scientists, UN officials, and the most vulnerable countries.

AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (November 18, 2013).

Japan pledges to raise carbon emissions, instead of cutting them.