Japan Cuts Emissions Goal in Setback for Climate Talks

Japan, the world’s fifth-largest producer of carbon dioxide, watered down its target to cut greenhouse gas emissions in a move that critics say will set back United Nations talks to tackle climate change.

The new target reverses course from the goal set four years ago by allowing a 3.1 percent increase in emissions from 1990 levels rather than seeking a 25 percent cut.

“As one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters, Japan has a responsibility to help lead the world in reducing emissions,” Kelly Dent, climate change spokeswoman at U.K. charity Oxfam, said in an e-mailed statement. “Instead their actions may well further erode trust in current negotiations, which must deliver a global climate deal in 2015.”

Envoys from about 190 nations are gathering in Warsaw to lay the groundwork for a treaty that would come into force in 2020 requiring all countries to limit carbon emissions. Japan’s new goal, approved by the Cabinet today, reflects its increased reliance on fossil fuel after the idling of its nuclear fleet because of the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

“The decision highlights the awkward compromises that many countries are making between affordable, reliable and low carbon energy,” Jonathan Grant, sustainability and climate change director at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, said by e-mail. “But the shift away from nuclear is towards natural gas rather than coal or renewables, so the carbon intensity of Japan’s economy is still around the average for industrialized economies: higher than Europe but lower than America, Australia and Canada.”

No Nuclear

Japan, which relied on nuclear power for more than a quarter of its electricity before the earthquake and tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, has kept its 50 operating reactors idle for safety checks. The new target was made without taking into account atomic capacity and may be revised as the country develops a clearer outline of its energy mix and policies, including the possible restart of reactors.

“We don’t know yet what the operational status of nuclear power will be in 2020,” Minister of the Environment Nobuteru Ishihara told reporters in Tokyo. “This is an ambitious target we strive to achieve by putting in as much effort as possible while we try to achieve economic growth.”

Japan will cut emissions by 3.8 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, Ishihara said. Ministry data shows Japan’s greenhouse-gas output increased 7 percent by 2005 compared with 1990, the baseline for the government’s previous commitment.

The old goal sought to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. The new target would represent a 3.1 percent increase from 1990.

Chinese Dismay

Japan sought to lead global efforts to fight climate change when it hosted the Kyoto talks in 1997, the only negotiations that resulted in a treaty limiting emissions. Since then, Japan has slipped from being the biggest economy after the U.S. to third place, behind China.

Su Wei, China’s lead climate negotiator at the UN talks in Warsaw, expressed ‘‘dismay’’ prior to Ishihara’s announcement after reports indicated Japan would scale back its ambitions.

China has surpassed the U.S. and Japan as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases since the Kyoto agreement, which didn’t include curbs on developing nations.

The EU and U.K. issued separate statements expressing disappointment at Japan’s decision.

Island States

Japan’s shift in climate policy weighs on global efforts to contain the temperature rise since industrialization to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the Alliance of Small Island States.

“Developed countries have committed to taking the lead and must do so,” the 44-nation bloc said in an e-mailed statement. Japan’s decision “puts our populations at great risk.”

Japan also announced plans today to invest $110 billion over five years from private and public sources to develop environmental and energy technologies.

The country plans to provide about $16 billion in the next three years to help developing countries address climate change and to launch a satellite to monitor emissions in Asia.

Japan seeks to double in three years the number of countries with which it has a bilateral arrangement to offset its emissions in exchange for clean-energy technology, according to documents released at a briefing in Tokyo. Eight countries, including Indonesia and Mongolia, have signed up.

The strategies drew criticism from environmental groups, including FoE Japan, a member of Friends of the Earth International.

“Japan can’t just ask developing countries to limit their emissions so long as the country increases its own,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

(Corrects sixth paragraph in story originally published on Nov. 15 to show Japan relied on nuclear power for almost a quarter of its electricity before the March 2011 disaster.)
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