17 August 2009: Japan and green growth

Japan seems to have come out of recession and its economy is, once again, growing. This is potentially bad news for the climate, but need not be.

Japan will not meet its Kyoto target of a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and will only meet its protocol obligations by buying credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows investments in overseas greenhouse reductions to count towards national reductions. The CDM isn’t wrong in principle. It doesn’t matter to the climate where greenhouse gases are emitted geographically (although, at high altitude, they are almost three times as damaging). However, it is widely open to abuse, and the rules and enforcement have so far been weak.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which is expected to win the election on 30 August 2009, says that it wants environmental policy to become a pillar of economic growth, and has offered a target of 25% reductions from 1990 levels by 2020. (The existing Liberal Democratic government has offered only 8%.) It promises to create a domestic emissions trading scheme, with caps on emitters, and to introduce a feed-in tariff for renewable energy. On the climate downside, they would also abolish road tolls and reduce transport fuel taxes.

The Japanese business lobby is opposed to cuts deeper than 6% by 2020. This will simply mean reaching the Kyoto target, eight years late. Yet Japan – including the business sector – has some good stories to tell about how to decouple economic growth from climate damage. Japan already uses energy more efficiently than other major economies, using only 71% of the energy per unit of GDP as the US does (see Japan – climate and energy statistics). Japanese companies have also been progressive on electric vehicles and the country has the third largest installed solar PV capacity (after Germany and Spain). It is also fifth in terms of installed solar thermal capacity, after China, the US, Turkey and Germany (see Global Solar Thermal Energy Council). However, policy on solar thermal has been inconsistent. In the past, Japan was the world leader – in 1970 there were four million solar water heater in Japanese homes and 10 million by 2000. But there has been no significant expansion since then.

Japan has no significant fossil fuel reserves. It also has no gas pipelines, so led the world in importing natural gas in liquid form. Therefore, a combination of energy insecurity, business and technological skills and political determination could see Japan lead in the renewables revolution.

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