A tectonic shift in Japan

A tectonic shift may be underway in Japan, but not of the sort normally associated with this country and its frequent earth tremors. Rather, a new era in climate politics may dawn as a result of the recent win by the DPJ in the national elections. This is because within the manifesto pledges of the DPJ sit two key policy choices, now (Monday September 7th) formally announced by incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama;

  1. A commitment to reduce national emissions by 25% by 2020, relative to 1990 – this compares with the proposal by the LDP of an 8% reduction, one which was heavily criticised internationally as being insufficient support for the developed country contribution to an agreement in Copenhagen.
  2. A commitment to implement a cap-and-trade system within the Japanese economy. Although the previous government had talked about this policy instrument, little progress was made in implementing it given the negative position that some business groups took towards it.

Whilst much domestic “nemawashi” is still to take place, this shift could be critical for the success of an agreement in Copenhagen.

But Japan already finds itself an international leader in energy management, given the energy legacy inherited from the previous administration. However, the CO2 story in Japan, whilst positive, has not delivered an overall drop in emissions. Whilst energy diversity and efficiency have been key policy objectives for many years now, absolute CO2 emissions have risen by nearly 15% from 1990 (to 2006, IEA). At the same time emissions in the EU-27 have fallen, but only slightly. Over the same time period CO2 emissions in the USA have risen by just over 19%. 

A focus on Japan

A big difference lies in the power sector, with Japanese power emissions staying at around 430 gms CO2 per kWh over a 20 year period, but EU power emissions falling from over 430 gms per kWh to some 350 gms per kWh in the same period. This is due to the continuing rise of nuclear power in the EU, the influx of natural gas and the more recent aggressive build of renewables in countries such as Germany and Denmark.  By contrast, Japan has seen emissions from coal grow by 45% over the same period, much of that in the power sector.

With a transport sector already one of the most CO2 efficient in the world and an efficient manufacturing base, the power sector will become a particular area of focus.  But efficiency alone is not going to deliver the necessary change, so fuel switching (i.e. more natural gas), renewables and international offsets will all play important roles.

The last item above will be critical to the strategy. But to be truly effective, the tougher target must be backed by an emissions trading system, which is also a preferred policy position of the DPJ. A Japanese emissions trading system, with very open access to international markets will allow the domestic target to be met but importantly will direct significant funding to developing countries.

Some quick numbers – let’s assume domestic emissions in 2013 are down to 1100 MT (with the Kyoto target met through CER and AAU purchases) and that the country can reduce this to 1000 MT by 2020 (i.e. a ~20% reduction from 2006 to 2020). Therefore, meeting a 2020 target of 810 MT CO2 (i.e. 25% lower than 1990) could mean the purchase of over 800 million tonnes of international credits from projects between 2013 and 2020.

Between Japan, the USA, the EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, six cap-and-trade systems could be buyers of some 10 billion tonnes of international reductions in the period 2013-2020, giving rise to not only a very large and liquid global carbon market but also an ability to fund very significant step changes in developing country emissions. In tandem, new avenues of supply would have to be rapidly developed, including a mechanism that supports some kind of sectoral crediting, although this will likely be more successful as an outgrowth of the CDM through the creative use of methodologies rather than an entirely new approach.

The announcements by the new government in Japan, if put into practice over the next three years, could have very far-reaching effects. Rather than facing the prospect of a lone EU-ETS struggling to hold the fort for this powerful market instrument, we instead head rapidly into the brave new world of a global carbon market.