When a country weakens its climate target does it make a sound - the Japanese precedent

Japan has formally signaled that it will renege on its climate commitment to reduce emissions. Instead of significantly reducing emissions they are now saying that they will have their emissions increase. This is a disappointment that is drawing scorn from a variety of quarters. How countries, NGOs, and the public ultimately react to this news is an important precedent for the future of the international climate agreement. After all, the whole system gets shaky if countries renege on their commitments and nothing happens. As the old saying goes: “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. 

Japan formally announced that they will now have their carbon pollution increase 3% above 1990 levels (announced as a 3.8% cut from 2005 levels) – a dramatic weakening of their previous commitment to cut 25% below 1990 levels.

In the climate agreements reached in Copenhagen and Cancun, the U.S. and other developed countries pushed hard to adopt new “accountability and transparency” provisions. We praised these at the time as an important piece of the system in ensuring that countries would follow through on their commitments. These were intended to serve as a tool to encourage countries to meet their commitments. After all, there is no Supreme Court of the world and countries don’t generally agree to create agreements where they could suffer financial penalties. So countries agreed to a more robust set of provisions that will provide important tools in ensuring that countries meet their targets.

The effectiveness of these tools depends on a simple premise: countries that are going to miss their targets are shamed into changing their behavior. So how countries react and whether the “bad actor” changes their behavior is an important test of whether this system is robust enough to deal with the gravity of climate change. The reaction to the Japanese announcement is setting a precedent for this system.

So how did countries react?

The European Union:

“We recognise that Japan found itself in a difficult situation following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. While we understand this situation, we expect all countries to stand by their mitigation commitments, and developed countries in particular to continue to show leadership in their respect. Up until now, Japan has been a leader in implementing effective policies to reduce emissions in line with its pledges.”

The United Kingdom:

“It is deeply disappointing that the Japanese government has taken this decision to significantly revise down its 2020 emissions target. This announcement runs counter to the broader political commitment to tackle climate change, recently reaffirmed by G8, as well as the enhanced ambition we have seen from the world's major emitters,” said Minister Davey.

The Alliance of Small Islands States (some of the most vulnerable to climate change):

“Given that Japan is one of the world’s largest emitters, AOSIS is extremely concerned that the announcements represents a huge step backwards in the global effort to hold warming below the essential 1.5-2°C threshold, and puts our populations at great risk. This is neither the time nor the place to be backtracking on commitments made by Leaders in Copenhagen. Developed countries have committed to taking the lead and must do so as we work to peak global emissions this decade and ink a new global agreement in 2015.”

United States:


Will other countries like the U.S. flag their disappointment Will the Japanese react and change their target in response to this “disappointment”? 

This is an important precedent for the “transparency and accountability” provisions in the future international climate agreement. If Japan is able to renege on their commitments with no consequences then what does that say if and when this happens again. There are real world implications to the precedent that is being set.

I hope countries hold Japan accountable for this decision.