Fumio Kishida, the newly-installed Japanese prime minister, could have been forgiven for giving COP26 a miss. The opening ceremony in Glasgow coincided with the general election he was fighting back home. But Kishida, having won the election, did make the trip, where he gave a speech broadly but not unreservedly supportive of international efforts to cut Co2 emissions. The reward for his restrained tone and tepid assurances? Japan was named ‘fossil of the day’ by the Climate Action Network group, an ‘honour’ bestowed on countries deemed insufficiently devoted to the cause.
Kishida’s specific crime was that while he did promise substantial financial aid to developing nations in Asia to work on low emission energy technologies, he didn’t confirm whether Japan would be phasing out coal production any time soon. Nor did he repeat previously stated (by his predecessor Yoshihide Suga) net-zero emissions pledges.
Suspicions, or hopes – depending on your viewpoint – are growing that Kishida’s administration will be one of the developed world’s most sceptical on climate change and will push back against the commitments made by Suga. One of Kishida’s first acts after winning the election was to enact a small-scale purge of the greenest members of the party hierarchy. This included environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi, to whom the figure of 46 per cent – Japan’s ambitious Co2 reduction target (by 2030 from 2013 levels) – had come in a ‘vision’.
Also gone is the strongly pro-renewables Taro Kono, the man Kishida beat into second place in the recent leadership contest. By contrast, the woman who came third in that contest, Sanae Takaichi, a proponent of more nuclear power plants, is now the party’s policy chief. Takaichi’s sponsor, the pro coal and pro nuclear former PM Shinzo Abe remains a hugely influential figure in the party, as does another former PM Taro Aso, who quipped recently that global warming ‘wasn’t all bad’ and made the rice in Hokkaido ‘more delicious’.
Japan’s new energy plan, approved at the end of October, calls for less reliance on fossil fuels and an increased use of renewables. But it is a heavily caveated document with what looks like aspirations rather than firm promises. It contains few hard deadlines. Without powerful advocates in key positions it could easily be watered down or even ditched.
It has been rumoured that Kishida, who is renowned for being a pragmatist, has had reservations about the green agenda for a while. During the leadership election campaign, he questioned whether it was ‘wise’ to rely simply on renewables as the dominant source of energy, which is about as forcefully as climate change scepticism is ever expressed by a public figure these days.
He got away with this as Japanese politicians have a bit more leeway than their counterparts in the west. The nuclear issue – in terms of safety – remains understandably contentious, but climate change is not quite the burning issue it has become elsewhere.
This may be partly because it has not attracted charismatic figureheads. Respect for one’s elders is still a powerful societal norm in Japan, so lauding a precocious teenager like Greta would seem perverse here. Celebrities, tightly controlled by their talent agencies, generally steer clear of any kind of potentially controversial activity. Direct action, particularly of the currently modish theatrical variety, such as lying down on roads, would be out of national character. It would also be unwise: the police, who are never far away here, would not tolerate it for a minute.
In Japan, there is also increased scepticism and scrutiny of the renewables industry since July's Atami flood disaster. The pleasant seaside resort 60 miles southwest of Tokyo was hit by torrential rain, which led to mudslides that destroyed dozens of homes and killed 19 people. Dramatic footage, showing a river of black debris-strewn sludge coursing through the town, played on a loop on the Japanese news for days.
Initially blamed on ‘freak weather’, a counter-theory soon emerged: that the disaster may have been exacerbated by a nearby renewable energy initiative. High up on the mountainside above Atami, work had been undertaken on an extensive solar panel facility. Over the course of the construction of thus, and other building work, a huge mound of earth piled up precariously. Under pressure from the deluge of rain, the mound collapsed into the town, adding greatly to the devastation. Other renewable projects are now being looked at closely by government investigators.
A distinctive Japanese position may be forming on climate change, which the thoughtful and diplomatic Fumio Kishida is well suited to represent. It amounts to this: making supportive noises that chime with the international mood music, while, in reality, moving cautiously, with a close watch being kept on the home economy.
It’s a subtle, grown up approach, not dissimilar to Japan’s lockdown in name only in response to Covid-19. Many will find it as refreshing as a cool breeze in contrast to the overheated rhetoric of some of Kishda’s fellow delegates in Glasgow.