Japan yesterday drastically weakened its greenhouse-gas reduction target, bowing to the impact of a shuttered nuclear power industry but drawing international criticism at UN climate change talks.
The government decided to target a 3.8 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 versus 2005 levels. That amounts to a 3 percent rise from 1990 levels — a sharp reversal of the previous target of a 25 percent reduction, the benchmark level for climate talks.
The new goal marks a dramatic turnaround for a nation that had championed the earlier Kyoto treaty on climate change, but it said it was made inevitable when the nation’s 50 nuclear plants were closed after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors northeast of Tokyo.
“Given that none of the nuclear reactors is operating, this was unavoidable,” Japanese Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara told reporters.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocates a return to nuclear power, although he says he wants to reduce the nation’s reliance on it over time. The process of restarting reactors will be slow, starting early next year at the soonest, and some will never come back on line due to safety concerns.
The loss of nuclear, which had accounted for 26 percent of Japan’s electricity generation, has forced the country to import dirtier natural gas and coal, causing its greenhouse gas emissions to skyrocket.
The Japanese delegation got a standing ovation when it arrived at UN talks in Bangkok in 2009, weeks after then-prime minister Yukio Hatoyama announced the 25 percent target.
In contrast, recent leaks about Tokyo’s target revision in the Japanese media have led to Japan being vilified in Warsaw.
“This move by Japan could have a devastating impact,” said Naoyuki Yamagishi of environmental campaigners, WWF Japan. “It could further accelerate the race to the bottom among other developed countries.”
Asked about Japan’s new target, lead Chinese climate negotiator Su Wei said: “I have no way of describing my dismay.”
Natural-gas consumption by Japan’s 10 utilities was up 8.4 percent last month from a year earlier and coal use was up 4.4 percent as the companies used more fossil fuels to compensate for the nuclear shutdown, industry data showed.
With Abe facing opposition to nuclear power even from within his own party, the weaker emissions commitment could be an argument for restarting reactors, given that Japan for decades has touted the clean energy.
“Our energy mix, including the use of nuclear power, is currently being reviewed,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. “In that context, we decided to set this target at this point.”
Hiroshi Minami, Japan’s chief negotiator at the UN talks, said the watered-down goal “is based on zero nuclear power” in the future.
“I expect I will face significant criticism,” Minami said in Warsaw, where the talks are continuing through next week.
At the same time, the nuclear shutdown could prove convenient for Abe in that it allows his government to abandon a target that some say was too optimistic.
“Anyone could have seen that this was just impossible — it was predicated on a nuclear ratio of at least 50 percent,” energy analyst Akira Ishii said. “All the people involved, including METI [Ministry of Trade and Industry], knew even before [the 2011 disaster] that it was impossible.”