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20:12 29 April 2015

OPINION: Japan's historic climate leadership appears in doubt

By John Prescott
TOKYO, April 29, Kyodo

As the world heads towards crucial global climate talks in Paris in December, and Premier Abe and President Obama met in Washington D.C., Japan's role in climate leadership is on my mind. In December 1997 in Kyoto, I worked closely with Japanese colleagues to negotiate the first internationally binding agreement to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Japan provided more than a venue. Under the leadership of premier Ryutaro Hashimoto, Japan's negotiators were tireless in their pursuit of agreement -- one we finally secured after a marathon all-night negotiating session in Kyoto.

Japan's support did not end with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. In the years to come, Japan's diplomats worked behind the scenes to encourage partners around the world to ratify the agreement they had helped forge, ensuring that it entered into force in 2005.

Nearly 20 years on, Japanese innovation is no less in demand. This fact is an underlying rationale for the Japanese government's Innovation for Cool Earth Forum (ICEF) aimed at addressing climate change through innovation. A number of Japan's leading companies such as Sony, Toyota and Toshiba are part of leadership fora such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, and contributing to debates on the role of business in delivering solutions to climate change.

Japan Inc. recognizes that as the emerging economies of Asia and beyond develop their industrial base, the technologies they adopt must be modern, efficient and impose as small a carbon-footprint as possible. The business opportunity is clear. As an early-mover Japan has an advantage that its companies can, and should, leverage.

So it is with grave concern that I hear that suggest that Japan's historic climate leadership appears in doubt. In a few weeks, Prime Minister Abe's government is expected to submit its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) on climate change to the United Nations climate secretariat in Bonn.

The Japanese government is reportedly planning to propose a national emission reduction target of 26 percent below 2013 levels by 2030.

The INDCs matter because they constitute governments' proposed national climate pledges for Paris. They set out national emissions reduction targets from 2020 onwards and form the building blocks of the final agreement to emerge from Paris in December. Over thirty countries, including the 28 EU member states, the U.S., Russia, Gabon and Mexico, have already submitted their INDCs. China's offer is expected imminently.

The ambition level of the INDCs matters, because, collectively, these pledges will constitute the substance of the Paris agreement -- the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Importantly, they must meet the test of keeping the world to below the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit agreed to by governments.

So, Japan's INDC target matters. A 26 percent reduction may appear ambitious, but a Japanese INDC based on 2013 levels raises questions. We know 2013 saw the highest output of greenhouse gases by Japan since 2007, as electricity companies turned to coal-fired power stations to make up for the closure of Japan's nuclear fleet post-Fukushima. In effect, if compared to the more commonly used baseline year of 1990, such a target would constitute a mere 17 percent reduction in emissions.

The risks are manifold. A weak target would not help Japan meet its oft-stated longer-term target of 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050, and could push Japan to the sidelines of the 21st century's race to a low-carbon future.

A decline in Japanese ambition, at a critical point in international climate diplomacy, could send the wrong signal to other nations on Japan's commitment to multilateralism. A commitment demonstrated so ably by Prime Minister Abe recently through his personal engagement and leadership at the U.N. Disaster Risk Reduction summit in Sendai hosted by Japan.

Of course, it is not too late for Prime Minister Abe's cabinet to change course. With its stewardship of the Kyoto process fresh in my mind, I know the Kyoto Protocol carries great significance for Japan's diplomats, politicians and business leaders. I am sure that it will impel the government of Premier Abe to raise its game now that the stakes on climate change are even higher, and the need for leadership greater than ever.

The meeting between premier Abe and President Obama may provide a clearer indication of Japan-U.S. ambitions on climate change leading up to Paris. Many in Japan and beyond hope that the legacy of Kyoto results in a ratcheting up of the climate diplomacy we saw then -- with boldness and vision defining Japan's position to meet the challenge of our times.

(John Prescott, Baron Prescott, is a former deputy prime minister and first secretary of state of Britain. He represented Hull East as the Labour member of Parliament between 1970 and 2010. John Prescott stepped down as an MP at the May 2010 general election. In March 2015 he was appointed adviser on climate change to the leader of the Opposition.)

==Kyodo

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