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Can Japan change the climate?

Richard Black | 12:26 UK time, Friday, 4 September 2009

Word is creeping out along various streets that Japan's new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will announce a significant change of climate policy when he travels to New York later this month.

The just-out-of-office Taro Aso government pledged to cut the country's emissions by about 8% from 1990 levels by 2020.

The word now emerging says that Mr Hatoyama will increase that to 25%; and that he'll announce it on the grand stage of the UN General Assembly on 23 September, the day after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special event on climate change for heads of state and government.

Yukio_HatoyamaDoes it matter? You bet.

All kinds of words are being used to describe the current state of the UN negotiations set to conclude in Copenhagen this December. Some of the politer ones are "stuck", "logjam", "mired" - you'll have to use your imagination for those that cannot be inscribed on a family-friendly blog.

One of the main reasons why they're "stuck", as I've referred to before, is that most of the developed world has already said how far it's prepared to go in pledging to cut emissions by 2020 - and for developing countries, it just ain't far enough.

That's what has some climate activists excited about the new Japan; 25% takes it into the ballpark demanded by developing countries, which is currently occupied only by the EU.

There are all kinds of caveats, of course - how much of the 25% will come from cuts at home and how much through international trading, does the government actually have the policies to make this quite savage cut - but politically it will make a big stir, no doubt about it, if the new premier goes ahead.

But it does also point up a much wider issue with the whole UN climate process. It is supposed to deal with a truly global issue and one that in terms of time scale goes way beyond the lifetime of any government; yet can be significantly strengthened or weakened or even derailed completely by political changes in a single nation.

The example that springs to most peoples' minds would probably be the transition from Bill Clinton to George W Bush, followed by the latter's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol - although to my mind, it's not a completely accurate example because the US Senate was so clearly opposed to Kyoto all along, hence Mr Clinton's reluctance to seek ratification.

Presidents_Bush_ and_ClintonI'd pick another - the transition from the Bob Hawke to Paul Keating governments in Australia in the early 1990s.

Although from the same party, they sang from different hymn sheets when it came to the environment.

Under Mr Keating's leadership, in the crucial period between the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the Kyoto conference of 1997, Australia went from being a supporter of the Kyoto concept to a sceptic, eventually securing itself both a target that officially allowed its emissions to rise by 8% and, more significantly, a special clause under which land use change could be counted as emissions control - a measure that according to some estimates effectively made its Kyoto target more like +30%.

The word at that time was that if Australia hadn't got its concessions, it would have walked away from Kyoto without signing anything - the treaty would not exist.

Internationally significant? Oh yes: when one country, especially one of the world's highest per-capita emitters, secures special treatment, then everyone else looks for it too.

The subsequent wranglings and special pleadings delayed the protocol's entry into law by years and introduced some major weakenings.

Something significant was, of course, widely anticipated in climate circles from the transition from George W Bush to Barack Obama; so how are we doing there, three months before Copenhagen?

Well, the Waxman-Markey bill - setting carbon caps and introducing a carbon trading scheme - is alive but delayed - not now due to come into the Senate until late September at the earliest.

Some of the reasons for the delay are connected with the bill itself - discussions over the economic impact, the possible export of polluting industries, and so on - but one of the big ones has absolutely nothing to do with the climate issue, namely political horse-trading over President Obama's proposals for healthcare reform.

Given that the US position is absolutely critical in determining whether a Copenhagen deal materialises or not, this is also a truly spectacular example of domestic political considerations that are nothing to do with climate influencing the eventual shape of a global treaty.

It's possible - what a nice co-incidence of timing it would be - that the Waxman-Markey bill will enter the Senate just as Mr Hatoyama is entering the UN General Assembly building to make his pledge.

Whatever your views on climate change - and I'm very well aware from reading your comments every week that opinions are as polarised as they ever have been - don't you find it unsatisfactory and indeed bizarre that narrow national politics can play fast and loose with global environmental governance?

Shouldn't frameworks on issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, fisheries management and so on be decided in a way that transcends the view of any political party - especially when most enter or leave office on policy platforms where environmental issues feature only marginally?

So here's my challenge to you smart thinkers out there: is there a way of doing it better?

I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts.

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