Why Japan Disowned Kyoto

December 7, 2010 | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger,

Japan's blunt declaration last week that it was walking away from the Kyoto climate treaty marked the end of an era. Since Copenhagen, international climate negotiations have proceeded on two parallel tracks, with most major emitting nations simultaneously participating in efforts to extend Kyoto while also working to formalize the Copenhagen Accord - the face-saving agreement among major emitters wrought in the dying hours of the COP-15 meeting in Denmark.

In stating, unequivocally, that it would only make further emissions reductions commitments under the auspices of the Copenhagen Accord, not the Kyoto Protocol, Japan left no doubt about which framework will be the primary vehicle for future international efforts to address climate change.

The announcement set off a small diplomatic riot, largely because Japan had single-handedly destroyed two contradictory fantasies at once. The first, held by Europeans and greens, was that the 2009 Copenhagen Accord would someday merge with Kyoto and require mandatory emissions limits from the U.S. and China. The second, held by China, India, and other big developing nations, was that they could demand emissions reductions from rich countries but adhere to no obligations themselves.

While the Copenhagen Accord, like Kyoto, still maintains the pretense that it will culminate in a binding agreement among major emitters to reduce emissions, the same intractable conflicts among major economies that have thwarted international agreement to legally binding emissions caps are not likely to be resolved through the Copenhagen approach. In reality, the post-Kyoto world is a post-emissions cap world. Future climate action is more likely to resemble what Japan has been proposing since the 2007 Bali climate talks - developed nations primarily focusing on developing and deploying advanced energy technologies in order to reduce their own emissions while working sector by sector with developing economies to transfer the appropriate technologies that can facilitate growth with low carbon technology.

Putting Kyoto Out of Its Misery

That the death knell for the Kyoto framework was offered by Japan, where the protocol was negotiated, is exceedingly appropriate. It is one thing for the United States, which refused to ratify Kyoto, to suggest that the treaty is a non-starter, it's quite another for Japan to do so. In contrast to virtually all other Kyoto signatories, Japan made binding commitments to reduce its emissions and took them seriously.

While Europe has loudly proclaimed moral leadership on the climate issue, Japan has quietly outperformed Europe by most measures. Already among the most carbon efficient economies in the world, Japan agreed to cut its emissions six percent below 1990 levels at Kyoto -- comparable to Europe's eight percent pledge. Although on paper Europe will likely meet its Kyoto targets and Japan will not, the numbers are misleading. Kyoto targets were negotiated in 1997, however emissions reduction targets were pegged to 1990 levels, allowing Europe to count enormous reductions in emissions resulting from the collapse of eastern bloc economies as well as Britain's transition to natural gas for non-climate reasons.

After controlling for those factors, Japan's emissions have grown more slowly since 1990 than those of any other developed economy in the world. The difference becomes even clearer if one compares emissions since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was actually negotiated. Since then, Japan's emissions have been flat while Europe's have grown eight percent.

The limits of Japan's tolerance for the Kyoto process were probably reached in the summer of 2009, when, in anticipation of Copenhagen, then-Prime Minister Taro Aso announced that Japan was prepared to make a legally binding commitment to reduce emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels -- and, that it intended to achieve those reductions entirely through deploying technology in the real-world, not through the purchase of U.N-certified offsets.

Intentionally or not, Aso's plan revealed the multiple hypocrisies built into the Kyoto protocol. By proposing to cut emissions from a 2005 baseline rather than 1990, Japan threatened to strip away Europe's claim to the moral high-ground, forcing a proper accounting of European emissions from a post-communist baseline. By proposing to achieve emissions reductions without offsets, Japan was, in effect, acknowledging they are bogus. And by proposing to achieve its 15 percent target through technology policies and relatively centralized planning, Japan rejected both the cap and trade approach preferred by European bureaucrats and the unattainable targets demanded by green NGOs.

Aso's plan was well-considered, meticulously researched, and technologically aggressive -- the kind of thing that should have been valorized as a real breakthrough. But in the funhouse world of international climate diplomacy, the Japanese proposal was, predictably, treated with derision rather than praise. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) denounced the plan as a "smokescreen." Greenpeace dubbed Aso "George W. Aso." And U.N. climate change chief Yvo de Boer tut-tutted that Japan has a "long long way to go."

The rebuke played no small role in Aso's electoral defeat later that year. The opposition seized upon climate change as an issue that symbolized the need to modernize Japan's political institutions, remaking Japan in the image of its Western European counterparts. The new government pledged, to hallelujahs from European leaders and green NGOs, to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020 with heavy reliance upon international offsets.

The U.N. climate circus then marched merrily on to Copenhagen where the whole effort collapsed spectacularly.

Kyoto as Kabuki

It's a good rule of thumb that the less you have to lose in international climate talks, the more vociferously you'll demand obeisance to the Kyoto Protocol. Green NGOs and the G-77 group of developing nations thus shrieked the loudest in the wake of Japan's recent announcement. "The Japanese government's shameful comments in Cancun," said a Friends of the Earth spokesperson, "signal that it cares more about big business than mother earth."

But the Kyoto negotiations have long since departed from any apparent relationship to serious efforts to protect the planet, if such an expectation ever existed at all. Those hopes died at least as early as 1997, when it became clear that the U.S. would not approve an agreement that didn't require China to control its emissions and that China would not sign one that did.

All that has transpired since then has been theater. The show goes on because it serves a variety of other political, ideological, and institutional interests. The U.N. General Assembly seized on a climate treaty as a bid for relevance. Developing nations used the U.N. to demand colonial climate reparations in the form of development aid for adaptation. Europeans made criticizing Bush-era opposition to Kyoto a proxy for opposing U.S. unilateralism. The Bush administration used Kyoto as a proxy for its opposition to creeping internationalism. And the Obama administration used Copenhagen to signal its commitment to multilateralism.

These contradictory agendas came to a boil in Copenhagen. European leaders like Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France lectured Chinese and Indian negotiators about their obligations to the planetary future. Tuvalu (pop: ~10,500) brought the proceedings to a halt for two days -- to ecstatic cheers from green NGOs -- demanding that the nations of the world return atmospheric carbon concentrations to pre-industrial levels. China privately refused to support any treaty that included binding emissions reductions for any nation while publicly joining the G-77 in attacking developed nations for refusing to commit to deeper emissions cuts. And developing economies decried Western profligacy while attempting to trade their nominal votes in the U.N. process to whomever would promise them the most development aid.

From Copenhagen to Cancun and Beyond

It was from this roiling cauldron that the Copenhagen Accord was born. In the waning hours of the conference, a small group of major emitters agreed to a three-page document that laid out a new framework for climate action. The accord straddled Kyoto's focus on top-down emissions reductions with more limited national commitments to deploy low carbon technologies, reduce energy intensity, and take other steps to reduce, or at least slow the growth of emissions.

As that new framework evolves, those more specific commitments, like the Copenhagen Accord itself, will seem at first to be little more than face-saving agreements in lieu of binding emissions caps. But over time, what will become clear is that they are the main event. If nothing else of significance occurs in Cancun, we can thank Japan for speaking the obvious truth about the irrelevance of the Kyoto framework and hope that they will not be bullied into keeping the zombie U.N. process on life-support. For if the world is to make progress reducing emissions, we will do it the Japanese way - not by negotiating abstract emissions targets that nobody actually knows how to achieve but by engineering our way, step by step, to a low carbon global economy.