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    Saturday, July 11, 2009

    Climate change and Japan: Lost in perspiration

    Tokyo, Monday, July 6, 2009 - As I sat facing the Foreign Minister of Japan in a boardroom adjacent to his downtown Tokyo office last week, I felt a bead of sweat form on my forehead. Trying to look as calm and sophisticated as possible, I reached up and dabbed at it with a tissue, but it was soon replaced by others.

    The more I thought about it – more specifically, the more I thought about trying not to sweat – the damper I got. Soon, my body was a rain forest.

    Was I nervous? Perhaps, though the interview could hardly be called highly charged, given that I'd been requested to submit the questions I would ask weeks ahead of time. Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone wasn't so much responding to my queries as he was reciting answers off a sheet that had been prepared for him by aides.

    It could have been the three-piece suit I was wearing. If I was ever waterboarded in Guantanamo Bay, my interrogators would quickly find out that one of the reasons I became a foreign correspondent was to avoid having to wear a suit and tie every day. My wife swears that my mood changes for the worse – and I start to sweat – as soon as I have that extra piece of cloth around my neck.

    But the biggest reason I was sweating is that it was 28 degrees inside the central Tokyo building that hosts Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    Four years ago, as Japan (like nearly every other industrialized country) lagged behind the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets set out for it in the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, Environment Minister Yuriko Koike made a decision that lands somewhere between the visionary and the sadistic: Tokyo would slash energy use by decreeing that thermostats in government departments could never be set lower than 28 C.

    Businesses were urged to set the same standard and many did. By the end of the year the government had a genuine success in the fight against global warming to crow about. In 2005, the Cool Biz campaign, as it became known, was estimated to have resulted in a 460,000-tonne reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide, a number equivalent to that emitted by one million households in one month. The next year was even better: a 1.14 million-tonne reduction in carbon dioxides, equivalent to 2.5 million households for one month.

    Cool Biz also set off a sartorial revolution in Japan (one that no one bothered to inform your correspondent about) as instinctively formal businessmen and government officials were forced to ditch their jackets and ties or sweat to death. That said, at least two government officials I met last week had ties that they sheepishly pulled out of their pockets whenever the occasion demanded.

    All of which makes Japan's recent dithering over climate change a bit hard to fathom. Prime Minister Taro Aso enraged environmentalists last month by setting a new emissions-reduction target that many felt falls short of what Japan is capable of. The way Japan presented the new number – a 15 per cent cut over the next 11 years – sounded impressive enough, but put up against the Kyoto Treaty baseline of 1990 emission levels, it translates into only an 8 per cent cut from that point, or barely beyond the 6 per cent reduction that Japan and many other countries have already committed to back in 1997.

    When I asked Hirofumi Nakasone, the Foreign Minister, about the international reaction to his government's new targets, he politely retorted that Japan was still a leader in the climate-change fight and that what the world needed post-Kyoto was a new climate change pact that bound rapidly developing countries such as China and India (who got a pass in 1997) to make reductions as well. He mercifully avoided reminding me that Canada was recently named the country that has done the least to reduce emissions of any in the G-8 (Japan came fifth).

    Still, coming from the government that hosted Kyoto, Nakasone's point-the-finger-at-others defence had me wondering how serious Japan really is in 2009 about curbing carbon emissions.

    I'd hate to think I got all hot and sweaty for nothing.

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