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What was behind Japan's surprise greenhouse-gas stand?

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 10:35 PM

What was behind Japan's surprise stand?

The show-stopping moment at the Cancun conference on climate change was Japan's stunning announcement last week that it opposed extending the Kyoto Protocol.

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It shook things up. Delegates at the beachside conference got upset. There were words on all sides. The Kyoto Protocol, said the island nation where the protocol was created, was unfair.

For those of you who don't follow climate change, here's why Japan's position was such a big deal:

The Kyoto Protocol is pretty much the highest-profile achievement the climate-change crowd can hang its hat on. It is a legally binding international accord to reduce greenhouse gases,

Negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, the protocol calls on 37 industrialized nations and the European Union to collectively reduce their emissions. The goal is to lower emissions from six greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2012, when the agreement is to expire.

Developing countries care about Kyoto continuing beyond 2012 because it provides greenhouse gas emitters in industrialized countries with a financial incentive to offset their greenhouse pollution by investing in emissions reduction in developing countries.

"Compared to the emissions levels that would be expected by 2010 without the Protocol, this target represents a 29 percent cut," says the Web site kyotoprotocol.com.

The accord doesn't make developing nations responsible for reducing emissions because they haven't produced much, but they are encouraged to preserve natural resources and invest in alternative energy to lower future emissions.

It all looked great on paper, but not so much in the real world. The biggest polluters, the United States and China - which account for about a quarter of the world's people and nearly half of its toxic emissions - are not bound by the agreement.

Without cooperation from China, which wouldn't allow independent observers to measure its emissions levels, and the United States, which couldn't get a climate change bill through Congress, greenhouse gases couldn't be reduced in any meaningful way.

But Japan tolerated their absence. Until now.

Japan said it would no longer lower its emissions to the detriment of its economy while pollution engines in China and the United States were at full throttle. When the current phase of the protocol expires in 2012, Japan said, it's over.

Led by China, developing nations pushed Japan to continue the protocol to its next phase until the United Nations could negotiate its replacement.

"Japan will not inscribe its target under the Kyoto Protocol on any conditions or under any circumstances," said Jun Arima of Japan's Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry. "Discussions focusing on a second commitment period will go nowhere."

But negotiations on its future are continuing.

- Darryl Fears

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