Smoke billows from factories at an industrial zone in Tokyo

Japan vilified for weakening emission targets

Japan has drawn international criticism after drastically weakening its greenhouse-gas reduction target.

The government announced it would target a 3.8 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2020 versus 2005 levels, which amounts to a 3 per cent rise from 1990 levels – a sharp reversal of the previous target of a 25 per cent reduction, the benchmark level for climate talks, and a dramatic turnaround for a nation that had championed the earlier Kyoto treaty on climate change.

But the closure of the nation's 50 nuclear plants after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which wrecked the Fukushima reactors north-east of Tokyo which had accounted for 26 per cent of Japan's electricity generation, has forced the country to import dirtier natural gas and coal causing its greenhouse gas emissions to skyrocket.

"Given that none of the nuclear reactors is operating, this was unavoidable," Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara told reporters.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocates a return to nuclear power, although he says he wants to reduce Japan's reliance on it over time, but the process of restarting reactors will be slow and will start early next year at the earliest with some never coming back online due to safety concerns.

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 per cent target, but recent leaks about Tokyo's target revision in the Japanese media have led to Japan being vilified at the talks 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 per cent in October from a year earlier and coal use was up 4.4 per cent as the companies used more fossil fuels to compensate for the nuclear shutdown, industry data showed today.

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," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. "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 per cent," said energy analyst Akira Ishii. "All the people involved, including METI (Ministry of Trade and Industry), knew even before (the 2011 disaster) that it was impossible."

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