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Japan: Turns to deft diplomacy on global warming

by Suvendrini Kakuchi

Tokyo, 9 Apr 2001 (IPS) -- Despite its own poor record on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, Japan is urging the United States to reconsider its pullout last month from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which sets targets to reduce global warming.

This position may earn Tokyo diplomatic praises, but it is not impressing environmental groups in Japan. They say Tokyo’s position remains weak because its words are not matched by deeds in cutting emissions of carbon dioxide, which is among the major gases that help push up the Earth’s temperature.

“To convince Washington, Japan should have expressed its own policies toward reductions at home,” says Naoki Hata from the activist group Kikko Network. “As usual, Japan cannot be firm with the Americans.”

Last week, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono telephoned US Secretary of State Colin Powell and expressed “disappointment” with the US decision that President George W. Bush said he took in order “not (to) do anything that harms our economy”.

Over the weekend, a Japanese government delegation headed by Senior Vice Foreign Minister Kiyohiro Araki travelled to Washington and appealed to Bush to continue to cooperate in global efforts to enforce the Kyoto treaty, according to Japanese media reports.

But US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Whitman rejected the Japanese demands and repeated Bush’s comments - that Washington would find acceptable a global warming treaty that has reduction commitments not only from industrialised countries but from developing ones too.

Scientists say that greenhouse gases - including carbon dioxide, which comes from the combustion of fossil fuels like coal and oil - are responsible for the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere over the last century.

Bush’s pullout makes the fate of the Kyoto Protocol even more unpredictable than it is now. While former US President Bill Clinton and other leaders signed the Protocol, no parliament has ratified it. The mechanisms by which those greenhouse gas reductions are to be achieved are still the subject of protracted negotiations that collapsed late last year.

The next round of talks is scheduled for Bonn, Germany in July, by which time Bush is expected to have come up with a new framework. The new US proposal is expected to call for a collective reduction measure with developing countries.

The proposal ditches the Kyoto accord that called on the United States to achieve a 7% reduction target, Japan 6%, and the European Union 8% on their 1990 levels by 2012.

During negotiations over the Kyoto accord, developing countries had balked at being put in the same basket as industrialised countries, saying more responsibilities were required of rich countries that produce the bulk of greenhouse gases. Some said they were being forced to cut greenhouse gas emissions to block their growth. The United States, for instance, produces one quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions. Critics add that the emissions of developing countries pale in comparison to those of industrialised countries on a per capita basis.

Analysts point out that the American withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty - many say Washington’s move killed it - has put Tokyo in a dilemma.

An expert at the Global Industrial and Social Progress Research Institute, which is affiliated with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, notes that Japan is far behind on its global warming targets. Its carbon dioxide emissions recorded an almost 10% leap in fiscal year 1999, which ended in April last year.  Most of the emissions came from the transport sector.

“There is a collective feeling among Japanese companies that it is difficult, almost impossible, to meet Kyoto targets,” he explains, on condition of anonymity.

He adds that the current recession in Japan has added to this gloomy prediction.  “Deep down, it could be possible that businesses could be applauding the US move,” he points out.

Officially though, Japan and its corporate sector are supporting the Kyoto Protocol. Observers say Japan is mindful of domestic and international opposition to the United States, and this is behind its lack of all-out support to its most important foreign ally.

Japan also cannot ignore the needs of two of its most important Asian partners, China and India, which are staunchly opposed to making commitments at par with industrialised nations.

At the end of a two-day meeting here on Sunday, environment ministers from China, South Korea and Japan issued a joint communique in which they “sincerely hoped the US government will actively work with all parties for a successful outcome to the UN climate change conference and the implementation of the Kyoto accord.”

In Tokyo, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration Minister Xie Zhenhua reiterated his country’s stance that responsibilities differ between industrialised and developing countries in achieving reductions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

A European Union delegation is now in Tokyo to discuss the repercussions of US junking of the Kyoto pact. The EU troika delegation, led by European environmental commissioner Margot Wallstrom, is on a mission to Japan, Russia, China and Iran (the current head of the Group of 77 developing countries) to drum up support for the anti-global warming accord.

The EU is advocating strong support for Kyoto targets even without US blessings, a stance environmentalists want Japan to follow as well. The EU also says it will ratify the Protocol with or without Washington.

Environmentalists point out that despite the difficulties in its path, there is overall support for the Kyoto targets. Last month, Japan’s Ministry of Environment released a report stating the need for new technological measures to meet Kyoto Protocol targets. The ministry outlined that greenhouse gas emissions can be cut by 33 to 56 million metric tonnes through increased use of waste materials and wind for electricity generation, as well by enhancing the efficiency of nuclear power generation.

The report says other measures, including the implementation of co-generation systems and the promotion of low-emission vehicles, can help limit heat-trapping gases by 1.05 to 1.18 billion tonnes by 2010, from 1.27 billion tonnes recorded in 1998.

Toyota Motor Corp. expressed its commitment to following the Kyoto commitments in a press statement last week.

“The general feeling, even among companies, is that global warming is a real threat and something must be done about it,” says Hata.

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