A Green Spring Coming to Japan?

Monday, 31. August 2009     0 comment(s)
Alexandru Luta
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme

On Sunday night the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept victoriously into the country’s more powerful lower house, handing the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) its most resounding electoral defeat since its formation in 1955. The DPJ had already achieved a majority in the country’s less powerful upper house in 2007.

As a result of this election, the DPJ now holds 308 (112 prior to the election) out of a total of 480 lower house seats, essentially swapping places with the LDP, who wrested only 119 seats from the electorate (303 prior to the election). DPJ leader Hatoyama Yukio is widely seen as the successor to incumbent Asō Tarō. The DPJ’s categorical victory is perceived to be a direct consequence of the party’s platform for change. Voters were wooed with promises to tackle unprecedented levels of unemployment, fast depleting government coffers straining under the burden of an increasingly aging society, and the neglected matters of education and child support.

This victory may potentially hold far-reaching consequences for Japan’s negotiating position for this year’s Copenhagen conference. While the outgoing Prime Minister pledged that Japan would seek to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions by 15% relative to 2005 (around 8% relative to 1990), the DPJ has vowed to pursue a -30% target relative to 2005 (-25% relative to 1990). It has further pledged to create a nationwide cap-and-trade system, the development of which has languished for years under the pro-business leadership of the LDP.

Still, casual observers of Japan should be warned to take yesterday’s spectacular upset with a grain of salt. In spite of voter turnout being rumoured to be the highest in two decades, the elections’ outcome is more likely a vote against the LDP than a vote for the DPJ. Many of the DPJ’s pledges have a pie-in-the-sky feel to them, such as the promise to decrease the role of unelected bureaucrats in policy drafting, to pursue an Asia-oriented diplomacy independent of Washington, to evict US troops stationed in the Futenma base in Okinawa and so on – all of them familiar tropes that have been already for decades on Japan-watchers’ wish-lists.

The DPJ in fact shares many characteristics with the ousted LDP. Chief among these is that it is a loose coalition of groups that cover a very wide spectrum of political views, instead of an ideologically unified actor. Experience shows that maintaining unity in such conditions will be difficult: The LDP was once ousted from power in 1993 – only to make a comeback 11 months later, as the would-be dragon slayers with no prior experience of governing tore each other to pieces over the spoils of war.

Whether the environmental pledges will materialize into concrete policy after the dust settles remains to be seen. For the time being, DPJ Secretary General Okada Katsuya holds the line: “We must make cuts [in emissions] based on scientific knowledge at any cost, instead of just doing just what we can”, he has told the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren). Unsurprisingly, business interests and some labour unions remain critical of this target. The Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry has also duly pointed out the nearly fivefold increase in the annual burden per household triggered by the DPJ’s announced policies.

One needs to point out that even the DPJ’s program is far from consistent. Its pledge to eliminate highway taxes has roundly been criticized by green NGOs for leading to a reckless increase of GHG emissions. Furthermore, while the purported new mid-term target may look like a significant increase, the DPJ has reserved the right to offset domestic emissions by purchasing carbon credits from abroad. Although currently Japan is a very active buyer of carbon credits, when announcing the LDP mid-term target then-Prime Minister Asō Tarō had declared in June that Japan would refrain from this after the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period ended. If post-2012 problems related to the trade in surplus emission allowances persist, or new ones, pertaining to forestry credits of questionable quality, etc. appear, the effectiveness of Japan’s new, more aggressive target might diminish. Watch this space for further developments.

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