Japan lowers emissions goal as nuclear reactors remain idle

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TOKYO -- Japan, the world's fifth-largest producer of carbon dioxide, has watered down its target to cut greenhouse gas emissions in a move that critics say will set back United Nations talks to tackle climate change.

The new target reverses course from the goal set four years ago, by allowing a 3.1 percent increase in emissions from 1990 levels rather than seeking a 25 percent cut.

"As one of the world's largest CO2 emitters, Japan has a responsibility to help lead the world in reducing emissions," climate change spokeswoman Kelly Dent at the British charity Oxfam said in an emailed statement. "Instead, their actions may well further erode trust in current negotiations, which must deliver a global climate deal in 2015."

Envoys from about 190 nations are gathering in Warsaw, Poland, to lay the groundwork for a treaty that would come into force in 2020, requiring all nations to limit carbon emissions. Japan's new goal, approved Friday by the Cabinet, reflects its increased reliance on fossil fuel after the idling of its nuclear plants because of the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

"The decision highlights the awkward compromises that many countries are making between affordable, reliable and low-carbon energy," Jonathan Grant, PricewaterhouseCoopers' sustainability and climate change director, said by email. "But the shift away from nuclear is towards natural gas rather than coal or renewables, so the carbon intensity of Japan's economy is still around the average for industrialized economies: higher than Europe but lower than America, Australia and Canada."

Japan, which relied on nuclear power for more than a quarter of its energy before the earthquake and tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, has kept its 50 operating reactors idle for safety checks. The new target was made without taking into account atomic capacity and may be revised as the country develops a clearer outline of its energy mix and policies, including the possible restart of reactors.

"We don't know yet what the operational status of nuclear power will be in 2020," Environmental Minister Nobuteru Ishihara told reporters in Tokyo. "This is an ambitious target we strive to achieve by putting in as much effort as possible while we try to achieve economic growth."

Japan will cut emissions by 3.8 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, Mr. Ishihara said. Ministry data shows Japan's greenhouse-gas output increased 7 percent by 2005 compared with 1990, the baseline for the government's previous commitment.

The old goal sought to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. The new target would represent a 3.1 percent increase from 1990.

Japan sought to lead global efforts to fight climate change when it hosted the Kyoto talks in 1997, the only negotiations that resulted in a treaty limiting emissions. Since then, Japan has slipped from being the biggest economy after the United States to third place, behind China.

Su Wei, China's lead climate negotiator at the U.N. talks in Warsaw, expressed "dismay" prior to Mr. Ishihara's announcement after reports indicated that Japan would scale back its ambitions. China has surpassed the United States and Japan as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases since the Kyoto agreement, which didn't include curbs on developing nations.

The EU and Britain issued separate statements expressing disappointment at Japan's decision.

Japan's shift in climate policy weighs on global efforts to contain the temperature rise since industrialization to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the Alliance of Small Island States. "Developed countries have committed to taking the lead and must do so," the 44-nation bloc said in an e-mailed statement. Japan's decision "puts our populations at great risk."

Japan also announced plans Friday to invest $110 billion over five years from private and public sources to develop environmental and energy technologies.


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