Cancun — Japanese NGOs feel that Prime Minister Naoto Kan's categorical statement in parliament on Monday that his government would not under any circumstances be party to a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in that historic city in 1997, went "beyond irony".
Although the government's position on not proceeding with a second phase of the protocol, which begins in 2012, has been known for a couple of years, this is the first time that the prime minister has publicly stated it in public. The announcement on the opening day of the U.N. climate summit in Cancún was timed to drive home a point.
Yuri Onodera, programme director for Climate Change and Energy of Friends of the Earth, Japan, told journalists Wednesday, "Japan's move to drop out of the Kyoto treaty shows a severe lack of recognition of its own historical and moral responsibility. With this position, Japan isolates itself from the rest of the world. Even worse, this step undermines the ongoing talks and is a serious threat to the progress needed here in Cancún."
He told TerraViva the government's move may have arisen due to "frustration over the process" regarding major emerging economies in general, and China in particular, not agreeing to commit to reduce their emissions.
The prime minister's move also came in the context of increasing tensions between the two major Asian countries.
"Specifically regarding China, Japan has a territorial dispute. There is also economic competition, with China surpassing Japan as the world's second biggest economy. There is sentiment involved, I suppose," Onodera added.
However, Onodera, who had been active with many fellow activists in helping forge the Kyoto Protocol 13 years ago, still expects the government to commit to combating global warming.
"Japan recognises its place in the international community," he said. "It would like to present a good face and project itself as a consensus builder. It is a truly significant for Japan, for its public image and its foreign policy. It is a matter of national pride. It would not like to be seen as dealing with this issue single-handedly."
"Many people will be watching if Japan is seen as not participating in the process," he continued.
The government felt that substantive progress had been achieved after Copenhagen. If its role as consensus-builder went the wrong way, Japan would be seen as a blocker, which it would not like and the prime minister could change its policy, he said.
He did not think that the U.S. would treat this as a precedent and cite Japan's pull-out to justify its own hard line against the Kyoto Protocol.
"This administration is different," he felt, "it won't destroy the process openly. I truly hope that the U.S. doesn't. The continuance of the Kyoto Protocol is critical for underdeveloped countries to be engaged in the process."
Asked by TerraViva whether the Japanese prime minister's statement had any resonance in U.S. climate policy, Dr. Jonathan Pershing, a top U.S. negotiator, said that since the U.S. was not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, it was not for it to comment on this development.
However, he added that he was aware of "previous discussions" about Japan's opposition to a continuance of the treaty, on which Japan was "quite clear". There were now two tracks – one for continuing with Kyoto and the other without.
"It is every country's right to take its own decision, just as it is important for a group of countries to move forward," he said.
"Russia is also a concern in this respect," Ondera told TerraViva. "It has made its support for the second phase of the protocol conditional on other major emerging economies, but at the same time, it is also flexible. Japan is moving in the opposite direction and will be isolated."
NGOs in Japan were engaging with government policies of all ministries and mobilising the public to tackle global warming. "Recent economic issues, including nearly five percent unemployment, had diverted the attention of the government and opened up policies to hardline elements," he concluded.
The U.N. climate talks in Cancún are seen as a critical test in which the credibility of the multilateral process of the climate talks and trust of developing countries can be reestablished, said Friends of the Earth. Developing countries suffer from the impacts of climate change caused by industrial countries like Japan. In spite of this, Japan had made its intentions more than clear during the first two days in Cancún.
Friends of the Earth International has urgently demanded that Japan reconsider its position and stop stalling climate talks, which have just begun. All rich countries, including Japan, should agree on cutting their emissions by at least 40 percent by 2020, without resorting to carbon offsetting, and agree to doing this under a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the group said.