Climate action now! Our report from Japan

Japan's cherry blossom season is changing. The blooming of the cherry blossoms used to coincide with the traditional start of the fiscal year, but it's been moving up over the past few decades. There's public awareness of a changing climate; the challenge is figuring out appropriate policy responses. With the election of a new government, it looks like Japan may finally be ready to get on the right track.

We spoke to a number of people about Japan's response to the climate crisis, including climate activists Kenro Taura (Kiko Network) and Naoyuki Yamagishi (WWF Japan), as well as a host of other local activists, academics, environmentalists, and acquaintances. Here's the story, as we understand it. (All mistakes are our own.)

KYOTO: Kyoto's role in the global spotlight as the host of the 1997 climate change summit had a big impact in Japan. While the resulting Kyoto Protocol turned out to be a mixed bag, the conference galvanized national attention around the issue, inspiring new climate activists around the country. Hundreds of Japanese groups launched a Kiko ("climate") Forum during the conference, which was later turned into a permanent Kiko Network, now made up of about 150 member groups.

INACTION: Again and again, we were told that Japanese citizens often expect the government to resolve problems, and the climate crisis is no different. Awareness doesn't always translate into political engagement or action. Local environmental NGOs do an amazing amount with a relatively small base of support -- not because the issue doesn't resonate with people, but because in a group-oriented society, even sympathizers are sometimes uncomfortable with direct engagement.

ROADBLOCKS: While citizens haven't spoken out in a big way, the corporate sector hasn't been shy. After the Kyoto agreement, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, supported by major business interests, seemed to look the other way on tackling Japan's emissions. At one point, the government was spending an astounding 80+% of it's climate change budget on road-widening. The Keidanren, the largest industrial association in Japan, has been consistently pushing the government to look for cuts elsewhere, or risk harming industrial competitiveness. While the Kyoto Protocol required Japan to set a midterm target of reducing emissions by 6% over 1990 levels, the Keidanren was reportedly lobbying to increase emissions by 4%. The environmental ministry has been reasonably supportive of stronger climate policy, but they've been fairly powerless compared to the trade and industrial ministry. Rules that have been put into place are often toothless; for example, local government agencies are required to create, but not implement, climate action plans.

SECRETS: Since the 1970s, Japanese companies have had to report on energy use to the government trade ministry. This high-quality data was never made public, even to the environmental ministry, but activists got their hands on the energy use data after Japan passed a freedom of information law in 2000. The shocking disclosure? 200 industrial sites are responsible for half of Japan's carbon emissions, and just 14,000 companies are responsible for 70% of Japan's emissions. A tiny number of major players do most of the harm -- and the data names names and allocates responsibility. Unlike the situation in most countries, the Japanese people now know who the nation's biggest carbon polluters are, their names and addresses. The next step? Action.

OBAMA-ESQUE: Japan's dramatic 2009 national elections marked the electoral loss of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in power since 1955, to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). While voters focused much more on the economy than the environment, the DPJ used climate policy as a way to clearly distinguish themselves from the incumbent government. New DPJ Prime Minister Hatoyama recently announced that Japan was ready for a 25% cut in greenhouse gas emissions over 1990 levels by the year 2020, which falls within the IPCC's 25-40% reduction guidelines. The local climate action community's happy at signs that the new government's taking the issue seriously, but are worried that vague early promises will be whittled down. While the industrial lobbies have less sway with the DJP than they did with the LDP, they're working overtime to block meaningful action.

COPENHAGEN: Japanese climate activists are hoping to hammer out a number of issues in the Japanese negotiating position before December's Copenhagen climate talks. There's a commitment to 25% greenhouse gas reductions (over 1990 levels) by 2020, but it's not clear how much of the 25% will come from genuine domestic reductions, as opposed to buying offshore offsets, REDDs, and emissions trading. The government's discussing financing schemes for developing countries' climate-related projects, but specific numbers haven't been announced. And there's still limited support for licensing of essential green technologies to developing countries, in part because of bad experiences licensing technology to nations like China.

HOPE: We celebrated October 24th,'s international day of climate action at two Tokyo events. First we met up with young concerned community members for a picnic in Yoyogi Park, then we hit the "Make The Rule" symposium in a crowded Tokyo conference room. A broad swath of the Japanese climate action community's come together around a national campaign to "Make the Rule" -- develop sweeping national climate change legislation to pin down specifics, and give industries and communities the basis they need to start taking action. It was exciting to see a room full of Japanese environmental movers and shakers, from their 30s to their 70s, strategizing on how to transition Japan to a low-carbon economy. It's going to be a tough fight, but Japan's green policy advocates seem ready to take on the challenge.

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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