Japan’s Climate Plan: Too Ambitious?

KQED’s Los Angeles Bureau Chief and frequent Climate Watch contributor Rob Schmitz is spending six weeks in Japan, as part of  the Abe Fellowship for Journalists. In the weeks to come he’ll file a series of special reports on Japan’s extraordinary strides in energy efficiency–and what we might learn from them.

Saturday night, on my way home from an interview, I witnessed one of the more interesting orchestrated movements of humanity the world has to offer. I shot this video when I was changing trains at Shibuya station, one of Tokyo’s busiest. The intersection shows how well Japan engineers pedestrian movement–but how well will it engineer its residents’ greenhouse gas emissions?

On Monday, I attended the Asahi World Environment Forum, where all the bigwigs on climate change were in attendance (including Yvo de Boer and Rajendra Pachauri, among others). The surprise visitor was Japan’s Prime Minister-elect Yukio Hatoyama.

Hatoyama makes his climate change pledge.

Hatoyama makes his climate change pledge. Photos: Rob Schmitz

He told a packed house that Japan will aim to reduce its greenhouse gases by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020.

“In my personal opinion, that’s impossible,” Hidetoshi Nakagami told me last week. Nakagami is President of the Jyukankyo Research Institute and holds a coveted seat on the advisory committee to Japan’s powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, or METI. “Hatoyama’s pledge is pure politics,” he said. “It’s not practical, it’s not possible, and there’s not enough time.”

Nakagami is not a pessimist. He played a large role in creating Japan’s very successful Top Runner program, a 1997 policy that searches for the most efficient model of any given electrical appliance and then makes that model the industry standard, requiring other companies to adhere to it when making new models of the same appliance. The program was one of Japan’s most ambitious energy efficiency measures, and Nakagami had to fight against Japan’s largest companies in order to help craft the policy into law.

While Nakagami would like to see a one-quarter reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels in the next decade, he says it’ll cost the average Japanese dearly. When former Prime Minister Taro Aso pledged to cut Japan’s greenhouse gases by 15% of 2005 levels, Nakagami’s institute estimated that the effort would cost each Japanese household, on average, 70,000 yen–a little over USD $700–a year. Even that, says Nakagami, would be a tall order in this economy.

In the end, Hatoyama may not fill this order. His historic pledge, which during his campaign, seemed to have no strings attached to it, now has an important caveat. At Monday’s forum, he told the audience that Japan will embark on this journey as long as other major countries also set similar ambitious targets.

Japan's future hanging in the balance.

Japan's future hanging in the balance.

After the forum concluded, I walked outside into Tokyo’s rush hour: pedestrians everywhere, taxis speeding by me. I stopped at a Shinto shrine built among enormous glass skyscrapers. In front stood an Omikuji shrine, where believers tie a paper copy of their fortune, with hopes that it’ll come true. Hundreds of paper fortunes rattled in the hot, summer wind. I wondered if one of them was Hatoyama’s.