Japan: Climate criminal or just a bit mixed up?

Politicians wanting to cite Japan's emissions backflip as a reason for inaction should remember the Asian giant is the most energy efficient economy in the world.

Australia did a pretty good job getting much of the rest of the world offside during the Warsaw climate negotiations. Abbott showed his deft diplomatic touch by suggesting that there was “no evidence” of other countries making comparable efforts to Australia in reducing their emissions. Then with the Phillipines showing just how tough things are for poor countries to cope with climatic disasters, the Australian government decided to label finance to assist poor countries with the impacts of climate change as “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”.

But we faced some competition.

Poland decided that it would sack its own environment minister in the middle of the conference it was hosting and its minister was chairing. Why? Because he wasn’t doing enough to encourage exploitation of shale gas.

But the Japanese government’s decision to water down its emission reduction target from a 25 per cent cut on 1990 levels to a 3.1 per cent increase has probably been seen as the biggest blow to negotiations. The government explained this away as being a consequence of their nuclear shutdown. Yet, according to analysis by Climate Tracker, replacing all nuclear production projected for 2020 with the present fossil fuel mix would reduce the original 25 per cent reduction to a 17-18 per cent reduction.

This decision for Japan to water-down its target will no doubt energise arguments here in Australia that we should be wary of making commitments to reduce our own emissions for fear it will disadvantage competitiveness. Bjorn Lomborg was quick out of the blocks to congratulate Japan, stating in The Australian:

“Japan's courageous announcement that it is scrapping its unrealistic targets and focusing on research and development of green technologies actually could be the beginning of a breakthrough for smarter climate policies.”

So far all I’ve managed to uncover from the English language press is that Japan plans to invest “$US110 billion over five years from private and public sources to develop environmental and energy technologies”. That amount of new government money over five years into low carbon technologies would indeed be a fantastic contribution. But the devil is very much in the detail. How much of this money is new and, beyond that, which would be planned anyway? How much of this money will simply be the government trying to take credit for money being spent by the private sector as a matter of course. Also, will some of this “energy R&D” be spent on energy technologies which aren’t low carbon, such as coal to liquids, or on ones that may never materialise except for defence applications. 

Still, those keen to hail Japan as a cause for Australia to pull back on emissions reduction ambition should be rather careful.

Japan is the most energy efficient economy in the world. According to International Energy Agency statistics, Australia uses 40 per cent more energy to generate a unit of economic value than Japan. Australia’s per person emissions are 2½-times those of Japan (25.1tCO2 versus 9.5tCO2). 

This cannot be written off on the basis of economic structure. For example, their steel mills and cement plants require less energy and emit less CO2 per tonne of product than Australia’s. Japan's electrical appliances and buildings are vastly more efficient than ours. In 2012 the best selling vehicle in Japan was the hybrid Toyota Prius. Yes, we export a lot of mining commodities which Japan doesn’t but, for the most part, mining is not all that energy intensive. On just about any metric Japan provides clear evidence that Australia has huge room to improve. 

If anything Japan is a reason Australia must work harder to reduce emissions, not pull back.