Friday, 11 September 2009

Climate change Thursday #7

Japan comes to the party

OK, so it's Friday. It's Thursday in the US- can I cheat that way? Anyway, Japan, the most technologically advanced nation in the western world has a leading business hotel without wifi. So this is late as I had a dash and frantic search for a USB to LAN cable. The MacBook Air that I'm using is so technologically advanced that it does not have an ethernet port. Caught between two stools.

However, it's an intriguing time to be in Japan as its new government is about to be formed with the coalition negotiations completed. In Japanese political terms this is, of course, seismic with the Liberal Democratic Party's almost complete lock on post-war Japanese politics being broken.

It is also important in the process of securing a deal at Copenhagen in December. Yukio Hatoyama, Leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, and Prime Minister-designate is a committed environmentalist. Well, he is committed other than a few of those glaring contradictions you get in all things Japanese- wanting to eliminate road tolls and such like.

However, on the central commitment- a major cut in Japan's greenhouse emissions relative to 1990 levels- he is rather bold. Currently, Japan, the host of the Kyoto negotiations and agreement (the clue's in the name), stands to fall short of its own commitments. It is 16 per cent out with three years to go.

On top of this, the LDP, famously entwined in an iron triangle of politics, bureaucracy and big business was proposing a rather tame 8 per cent cut on 1990 levels by 2020. Hatoyama, used to walking on the wild side (his wife was abducted by aliens) is going for a rather more robust 25 per cent. There was a deluge of 1980s and early 1990s literature called things like Japan as Number One. When it comes to cutting greenhouse emissions Japan might just be about to challenge the EU for number one spot. Keep bidding up guys.

Of course, there are get outs to the commitment. It only applies if the other major polluters- notably the US and China- make significant commitments also. It includes Japan's investment in carbon saving technology in developing countries and that will require there to be close watch on what is included in that. The Clean Development Mechanism has thrown up all sorts of challenges: additionality, measurement, monitoring, etc. Ultimately though, these are broader issues faced by all the signatories of Kyoto and the forthcoming (fingers crossed) Copenhagen treaty.

The prospects of a substantive deal have increased significantly in the last 18 months or so. Starting at the end of 2007 with the election of Kevin Rudd, followed by Barack Obama's victory in November 2008 (watch out for Congress though....), the EU's strong 20-20 commitment at the end of January of this year, and now this commitment from the incoming Japanese government have significantly shifted the prospects of a deal.

China though is still talking in terms of peak emissions in 2030. That is a long way short of what is required. However, empty moralising won't win the argument. There should also be an acknowledgment that China's issues are genuine- it is our development that has got the world to this position not China's (until recently) and it does import a great amount of our emissions as it manufactures many of the products we consume. Equally, we need a major cut in global emissions and so can't allow China to continue even with a less than baseline target. It will need some vision and finesse to find a way out of the coming impasse.

Though the changes in the US, Australia, the EU, and now Japan place increasing pressure on China, the last thing that should happen at Copenhagen is that China should be isolated (it won't be anyway as other major developing nations with align themselves but that is equally problematic.) With the changes in the Japanese government's attitudes at least the moral authority of the developed world is now stronger. There is still, however, an enormous distance to be traveled.

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