Japan election tests opposition's green resolve

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s main opposition party will push for tougher climate policies if it wins power in an election this month, as polls suggest it will, but some campaign promises have thrown doubt over the group’s resolve for dramatic change.

The leader of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party Yukio Hatoyama attends a news conference in Tokyo August 11, 2009. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The opposition Democratic Party has sought to differentiate itself from Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) before the August 30 vote, vowing to aim for bigger cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and to spur renewable energy use.

The Democrats, however, face the tough task of balancing their push for a low-carbon economy with the need to quickly implement policies that have mass appeal to consumers and industries ahead of a second election to parliament’s less powerful upper house in mid-2010.

The Democrats say they will target a 25 percent cut in emissions from Japan, the world’s fifth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, from 1990 levels by 2020. This is tougher than the current government’s 2020 aim equivalent to a cut of 8 percent below 1990 levels.

Pressure is growing for a more aggressive climate policy after Japan’s emissions rose 2.3 percent to a record in the year to March 2008, putting them 16 percent above the Kyoto Protocol target it needs to reach in the run-up to 2013.

To reduce emissions, the party plans to create a domestic emissions trading market with compulsory volume caps on emitters and introduce a “feed-in” tariff for renewable energy to help expand capacity for clean energy sources, among other measures.

But the Democrats also plan to eliminate highway tolls and abolish a decades-old surcharge of about 25 yen (26 U.S. cents) per liter on gasoline from April.

Those measures, featured in campaign speeches as part of promises to help voters beat the recession, are criticized by climate analysts, who say they run counter to any call for greener lifestyles.

“Climate policies should not just be about cutting emissions, but about setting a vision for society, getting people to be less dependent on cars,” said Kazuo Matsushita, professor at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies.

“The government should be promoting the use of trains, ferries and other forms of public transport, not hurting their business by making highway tolls free.”

Free tolls and reduced gas tax would boost car traffic by 21 percent and increase carbon dioxide emissions by 9.8 million tonnes a year, said Naomi Kamioka, researcher at the Research Institute for Local Initiative of Environmental Policies.


While it struggles with its current Kyoto commitments, Japan wants to play a bigger role in negotiating U.N.-backed climate talks in Copenhagen in December so that emerging economies such as China and India join a new climate pact that goes beyond 2013.

Analysts said Japan needed to focus on projects such as consolidating fragmented electricity grid networks and improving public transport, while an environment tax is urgently needed to discourage polluters in industry and households.

The Democrats have called in the past for a carbon tax, but experts were disappointed that the party promised in its election manifesto only to consider the idea, a result some suspected was the result of pressure from key supporters in the unions.

“If they appear to be wavering in their policies, it’ll raise doubts over how serious they are on climate policy,” said Hidefumi Kurasaka, professor of environmental policies at Chiba University.

“The party may be planning to impose an environment tax in the future, but it needs to spell out details.”

Green groups say a Democrat-led government will find it harder to introduce a carbon tax if it drags its feet as industry will have grown accustomed to cheaper gasoline after the party reduces the tax in April.

Still, an election win for the Democrats would likely mean a more proactive approach to fighting climate change than the LDP, which for years squashed proposals for a carbon tax and has been reluctant about an emissions trading system with mandatory caps.

“If the LDP stays, it means Japan will fall behind the rest of the world on climate policies,” said Jiro Adachi, executive director at the Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society, a NGO.

“There’s a lot of skepticism over the Democrats, but they still offer the possibility for change.”

($1=95.31 Yen)

Editing by Ron Popeski