Fukushima is providing cover for Japan to renege on its climate obligations

Japan has given two fingers to developing nations on the climate change frontline.

Dr Doug Parr is chief scientist for Greenpeace

Just in case some of the poorer nations at this year’s global climate jamboree began to contemplate the idea of possibly being stirred into action (not action, anything but that!) by recent extreme weather, haemorrhaging ice in the Arctic and the tragedy unfolding in the Philippines, three major developed nations decided to pre-emptively rain on their parade.

Canada, Australia and Japan have all ripped up promises they made to the world and decided to pretend that climate change isn’t happening.

What is so different about climate science in these three nations that has made their estimation of the urgency of the problem so different from the rest of the world?

Nothing, is the answer. Their climate scientists agree with the rest of the world’s climate scientists that we need radical action. The fault lies not in their scientists, but in their fossil fuel industries. Australia’s biggest export is coal, and Canada has bet the farm, forest and tourist industry on the only fossil fuel which can compete with coal for sheer filthiness: tar sands.

But what about Japan, notoriously free from major fossil fuel reserves?

Japan has a much better excuse than mere greed. The Japanese nuclear industry – their main source of low-carbon energy – has collapsed, and whilst they’ve stepped up their renewables and energy efficiency programmes a lot of the energy replacing their nuclear power has been generated from oil and gas. So they’ve got a pretty good excuse. And they know it. And they’re milking it.

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy provided around 11 per cent of Japan’s primary energy. Fukushima won’t be the only reactor to close permanently; Japan are currently intending to have several reactors running again before 2020. Furthermore, not only has the country cut demand by around 15 per cent at key times, it has also approved more new renewable capacity since 2012 than its entire installed base up until that point (a total of 26.7GW, equivalent to about six or seven nuclear reactors).

According to a Greenpeace study, Japan can achieve emission cuts of more than 20 per cent without relying on its nuclear energy sector. And yet they’ve raised their forecast emissions from a 25 per cent cut from 1990 levels to a 3 per cent increase. That means Japan has raised their 2020 carbon budget by 37 per cent.

So, whilst Japan provides a stark warning against relying on the nuclear industry to provide reliable low-carbon energy, that industry’s failure only accounts for less than a third of the change in their forecast carbon emissions.

What is the cause of the other two thirds?

Opportunism. Fukushima provides the cover for Japan to renege on their international obligations with a minimum of criticism, and so they’re following Rahm Emanuel’s edict: ‘never let a crisis go to waste’.  Their new wildly unambitious targets allow them almost total latitude in their energy, industrial and transport policies – essentially they’re compensating for Fukushima and anything else which could conceivably go wrong in the next seven years – up to and including them just not really trying.

Energy secretary Ed Davey called Japan’s decision “deeply disappointing”; but it’s more than that. Japan has given the rest of the world yet another excuse to give two fingers to the Philippines and other developing nations in the climate change frontline.

That’s a problem with nuclear disasters – the fallout can spread around the globe.

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