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Japan environmental plan includes controversial greenhouse-gas target

Japan approved its fourth basic environmental plan today, with an ambitious long-term target for carbon reduction.

The latest plan tries to reconcile Japan’s environmental goals with the new reality the country faces in the wake of last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The 160-page document promises to renew Japan’s commitment to biodiversity conservation, clean up water and air, help to ease the environmental burden of developing countries and do other things to build a sustainable economy and society within Japan and internationally. Reflecting on last year’s Tohoku tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, the plan promises to have more dispersed and decentralized energy sources, take measures to clean up disaster debris and implement plans for cleaning nuclear waste. The document is sprinkled with ambitious targets, such as raising ¥50 trillion (US$626 billion) in new environment related businesses and 1.4 million environment-related jobs by 2020. But the one that probably raises the most eyebrows is the target of cutting global-warming gases to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

That goal seems more distant even as it gets its first formal acknowledgement. It has been tossed around before, most notably in a November 2011 agreement between the US and Japan. Its appearance now seems a strange one. Just last week, Japan announced that its greenhouse-gas emissions climbed in fiscal year 2010 (ending 31 March 2011) by 4.2%, derailing plans to meet its Kyoto Protocol target of a 6% reduction from 1990s levels by March 2013.

And that was before the Fukushima disaster, which knocked Japan into a whole new realm of energy policy uncertainty. Since then all nuclear reactors ― which had previously accounted for 30% of the country’s energy supply and the lion’s share of its low carbon energy ― have been or will soon be shut down.  Many reactors are old and scheduled to be shut down anyway, but efforts to convince locals in sparsely populated areas around Japan of the need for more nuclear plants, stymied by local opposition before, seem pointless now.

With this in mind, Japan has some hard thinking to do about its energy policy. That thinking is now happening in heated meetings over the country’s energy plan. By the end of May, the government plans to have a handful of scenarios describing future energy mixes and will whittle that down to one by the end of the summer. With that, some important questions, such as whether Japan will honour its promise to cut global-warming gases by 25% by 2020 even after the Fukushima disaster, will become clear.

Many in the business world were critical of this target which, they say, was laid out by the Democratic Party of Japan’s Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan without due consideration of how it would be realized. Now they are happy to have the opportunity to discuss the economic costs of implementing the plan, says a representative of Keidanren, the country’s largest business lobby.

That the country would propose to cut emissions by 80% before 2050, before having finalized its 2020 and 2030 plans and without making any changes to account for the Fukushima disaster, is a bit mystifying to some. But unlike the 2020 goal, this one is not a binding, international promise. As the Keidanren representative told Nature, “If it’s just a vision, that’s OK.”

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