Japan, still the world’s third-largest economy, was once the poster child for aggressive environmental policy. It chaired the historic conference 15 years ago that led to the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first climate pact, and it pioneered clean technology, using decades of research to boost energy efficiency.
The centerpiece of Japan’s efforts to combat global warming was nuclear power. But since last year’s Fukushima nuclear complex disaster, this resource-poor country has been forced to sharply increase its use of dirtier fossil fuels.
Environmental experts note that Japan, with the right policy push, could build up its long-neglected renewable energy sector and eventually fill the void of atomic energy, which before the Fukushima disaster accounted for one-third of Japan’s electricity output. But that will take years, and in the meantime, Japan will see its greenhouse gas emissions spike as power companies struggle to meet demand.
Japan hasn’t yet formally backed away from its pledge, made in 2009, to slash emissions by 2020, a government spokeswoman cautioned. It has also honored its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, which required industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gases by an average of 5 percent from 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.
But a government report issued last month highlighted the enormous challenges now standing in the way of the more ambitious pledge for deep additional cuts by 2020. The report said it would expect only a 5 to 9 percent emissions cut from 1990 levels by 2020. Meeting the 25 percent target is “extremely difficult” without nuclear power, said Shuichiro Niihara, a manager for carbon-reducing strategies in the environment ministry.
The pledge, announced by Yukio Hatoyama days before he took office as prime minister, followed up on a campaign promise and maintained Japan’s status as a low-emissions front-runner.
Even before the Fukushima disaster, environmental experts said the 25 percent target would have been difficult to attain, but they praised Japan for trying. “Fukushima makes it much, much harder,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the nonpartisan Arlington-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
A leading activist, Hisayo Takada, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace, said that Japan is now paying the price for years in which its support for nuclear power meant that Tokyo “gave lip service to renewable energy but didn’t give it real attention.”