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Rising Sun, Sinking Influence? - Japan’s self marginalisation from global climate politics

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All eyes are turning to Japan, it’s just published its draft offer for the Paris climate deal and Prime Minister Abe has been in the US capital to secure a more assertive foreign policy. This is prompting international voices to question Japan’s assumptions and outlook on climate change.

In our new report, “Rising Sun, Sinking Influence?”, E3G is charting the economic, geopolitical and security impacts of Japan’s decisions to consistently temper its actions to curb climate change. For many living in the western hemisphere, Japan has often represented the future. New gadgets, efficient technologies and modern living are all firmly lodged in our imaginations of what Japanese life is like. Everything that makes modern life easier from our TVs, computers, cars and washing machines often comes from Japan. To an outsider, it therefore seems bizarre that the Japanese government would shun the race for the low carbon economy. Japan has all the ingredients to reap the rewards of a low carbon future in an advanced high tech industry, but also deep concerns about low energy security and fierce competition from China. So what’s stopping them from going further, faster?

Of course, Fukushima played a big role. The monumental disruption the reactors caused was something unseen for a generation. Japan lost virtually 30% of its energy supply overnight. The clips of Japanese civilians coping with the impacts hit home to many. The Japanese population showed incredible resolve, reminding the world that even the most prosperous of nations are acutely vulnerable but the people are resilient. The global climate community gave Japan a grace period to consider its options. But the world is no longer waiting for Japan.  Global progress towards fossil fuel phase out is accelerating and inevitable, but time is of the essence. The US-China agreement has underscored Japanese inadequacies in dealing with climate change, whilst Germany proves that it’s possible to decarbonise and phase out nuclear. Japan’s government is becoming ever more politically and economically exposed due to the historic global progress in addressing climate change. The recent announcement of Brazil’s draft emissions reduction offer (26% reductions below 2013 baseline by 2030), at first glance, doesn’t look like its pulling its weight on climate action in comparison to others. 

And if anyone can surge ahead on climate, surely it’s Shinzo Abe. The charismatic and forthright Prime Minister’s foreign policy preoccupation lies to the west of Japan, with China. Abe’s vision to restore Japan’s military, reducing its dependence upon the US is a core part of Abe’s political agenda. But to manage China’s assertiveness in the region, Japan needs its neighbours as allies. Climate change threatens to destabilise the relative peace in the region, something Japan cannot manage alone.  Tacloban, 18 months on is still a scene of devastation from Typhoon Haiyan. In order to protect its own interests and efforts as a first responder to this increasing tide of disasters, Japan will need to step up its efforts to curb emissions and limit the damaged caused. Addressing climate change supports Japan’s own interest to maintain regional stability. But it’s not only the region that will suffer. Whilst Japan’s perception of itself is of a resilient nation, the Japanese people and their companies rely upon a functioning global supply chain to maintain their prosperity and growth. In 2010, Japan was the fourth largest resource importer in the world. Looking to the future, as climate change intensifies; it will severely disrupt and in some cases destroy resource supply chains. 

Japan’s anaemic draft offer, it’s downgrading its emissions targets, stepping out of the second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol, and continuing to bow down to the incumbent coal and nuclear sector, Japan is self-marginalising. Japan is taking itself out of the game, just at the very moment the game heats up and becomes real - climate change is becoming a core component of trade, security and investment decisions globally. But Japan wants to sit this out, in the hope that climate politics and action will disappear. As a major competitor, Japan ought to care about China reaping the rewards of Japan’s hard work, but it seems to be avoiding making an active choice about its future.