The weakness of Fukuda’s (and Japan’s) carbon campaign

As the Fukuda government has insisted at every chance it has to remind Japanese citizens and foreign governments that the focus of this summer’s G8 summit in Hokkaido will be climate change policy. Tokyo is eager to be at the forefront of the quest for a post-Kyoto climate change pact.

This weekend Mr. Fukuda took this message to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

(Incidentally, this week’s meeting brought to mind “Ringing of Revolution,” a song by radical folk singer Phil Ochs — nothing like a gala fest of the high and mighty on Swiss mountaintop while in the outside world the world economic system as we know it comes crashing down.)

In his speech at a closed meeting, Mr. Fukuda reiterated that climate change will be the main theme of the summit, warned darkly about the consequences of climate change, and explained his government’s three-part approach on climate change policy — (1) a post-Kyoto framework, (2) international environmental cooperation, and (3) technological innovation.

All well-intentioned, all important, but ultimately mostly irrelevant, for a couple reasons.

First, as former UN official Shashi Tharoor, who attended the Fukuda address, wrote in his Davos Diary at Foreign Policy‘s Passport blog, “…The number of empty seats at the half-dozen tables around the PM testified to the declining salience of Japan, a country that two decades ago was seen as the world’s economic powerhouse and, bluntly, no longer is.” Mr. Fukuda and other Japanese officials speak before international audiences, everyone nods in agreement, and then moves on to more important matters and actors. Japan’s good intentions and clever ideas are not enough to make the rest of the world pay attention.

Beyond Japan’s undersized international presence, there is a much more concrete reason for Japan’s environmental leadership being stillborn: forcing the world to rethink its carbon emissions means in practical terms forcing the US (its most significant ally) and China (its largest trading partner) to change their economic systems drastically. Does anyone seriously think that Japan or any other one country will be able to make this happen? Change will happen when both the US and China change domestically and become willing to make radical changes in how they use energy, in the process taking the lead internationally on climate change.

Japan might play a niche role in developing energy-efficient technologies and sharing them with the world, but I have a hard time envisioning Japan in the driver’s seat, forcing its partners to make substantial compromises that will enable progress on reducing carbon emissions.

7 thoughts on “The weakness of Fukuda’s (and Japan’s) carbon campaign

  1. Anonymous

    Let\’s agree to disagree on the question of Japan\’s role in the climate change effort. Al Gore no less has praised Japan\’s domestic efforts to meet and possibly exceed the Kyoto requirements. The role of the automobile makers in pushing their hybrid car technology has met with huge success in the largest market in the world as everyone knows. Climate change has reached a critical time period as the IPPC director Pachauri (shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore last year) has reported at the Davos summit. Given the reluctance of US auto makers to fully embrace the need to curb GHG emissions from their products (why is GM still selling the gas guzzling and socially harmful Hummer) this leaves progress in the greening of the auto sector to the Japanese and European makers. And as you know after Ronald Reagan almost shutdown the solar industry in the US by refusing to extend tax breaks started under Jimmy Carter, the Japanese and Germans had the foresight to boost their role in solar power production and sales worldwide.

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  2. I\’m not doubting the significance of Japan\’s domestic efforts or its ability to crank out innovative, efficient products.I\’m doubting its ability to make other countries, especially the US and China, follow its lead. And without those two — and India — making drastic changes, Japan is tinkering on the margins.

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  3. Bryce

    Do you think anything has changed? Japan has always been known as a \”political pygmy\”. When its economy was skyrocketing, it didn\’t \”lead\” the world, even in financial affairs. Japanese leaders are generally content to strut the world stage, pose for a few pictures, make a few suggestions and then come home to tell all their constituents how great Geneva or whatever was.Read the two books on the Koizumi administration by Koizumi\’s secretary, Iijima Isao. The one on domestic affairs is quite detailed and interesting. The one on kantei diplomacy reads like a travel diary. Pretty pictures though.

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  4. Anonymous

    Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo delivered a substantive message at the Davos summit promising to deliver $10 billion to the climate change effort and the African development funds this year. He promised to continue these two themes at the G8 summit in Hokkaido later this year. Davos host Klaus Schwab thoughtfully included the former British PM Tony Blair who questioned Fukuda after his speech. Blair was enthusiastic about the promises because it continues the two themes at the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland. Since the Gleneagles summit was traumatically interrupted by the July 7 London bombings, Blair also wanted to know whether terrorism would be addressed by Fukuda at the upcoming G8 summit.

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