Kyoto Compliance in Shambles

Published June 1, 2003

Opposition to nuclear energy has thrown Japan and Britain seriously behind their greenhouse gas emission goals contained in the Kyoto Protocol, and there appears to be no solution in sight. Their experiences lend support to the Bush administration’s opposition to making the U.S. a party to the United Nations-sponsored treaty.

Japanese Scandals

In Japan, a series of bureaucratic scandals involving safety issues have undermined support for nuclear power. Nuclear reactors emit no greenhouse gases and have been a central component of Japan’s effort to meet its emission goals. As a result of the scandals, Japan will likely build only a fraction of the new generators originally planned.

Japan’s power companies had planned to build 12 new nuclear facilities by 2010. The Japanese government has deemed all 12 necessary to meet its Kyoto goals. Now, the Japanese government forecasts only eight new facilities will be built, leaving a large discrepancy between its greenhouse gas pledge and its forecast emissions. Just as importantly, analysts believe the country will never build even those eight facilities.

“(The number of) new nuclear reactors is a very optimistic outlook,” said Kazuya Fujime, managing director of the Institute of Energy Economics Japan (IEEJ). “The IEEJ’s forecast is for five new units.”

Fujime added some experts believe as few as three new nuclear facilities will be built.

Even before the forecast reduction in nuclear power plants, Japan was lagging behind its emission reduction goals. By the year 2012, Kyoto requires Japan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 baseline levels. For the fiscal year ending in March 2002, Japanese emissions were up 6.3 percent from 1990 levels. Japanese Trade Ministry officials have stated the country would be even further behind its emission goals if the country were not in a prolonged economic slump.

“By far the main reason for the [current emission levels] is the deterioration in the economy … which meant less energy consumption,” said a Trade Ministry official.

British Renewables

Support for Kyoto deteriorated in Great Britain after experts at the Scottish Energy Environment Foundation (SEEF) forecast the government’s commitment to producing 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources will lead to no net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

SEEF, an independent advisory organization established by the executive branch of the British government to examine energy demand and efficiency, explained that low-emission renewable energy sources will merely displace zero-emission nuclear power plants. The conversion from nuclear power to renewable sources thus will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions than would otherwise be the case, said SEEF.

“You have to ask what the overall aim of what we are trying to achieve is,” said SEEF Director Chris Bronsdon. “If it is emissions reduction, then even if we meet the 40 percent target, we will be slightly worse off.”

Don Barlow, head of research at Friends of the Earth Scotland, argued renewables were never meant to meet Kyoto goals by themselves, but must be accompanied by reductions in overall energy use. Barlow pointed out British energy consumption has risen 9 percent since 1991.

Green Tax a Failure

The SEEF forecast was just the latest piece of gloomy news for Kyoto supporters in Britain, who also have had to address growing bipartisan criticism of the government’s “green tax” strategy. Attempts to induce reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through carbon fuel taxes and fees have stalled in the face of mounting public opposition to rising fuel prices.

British Treasury Chancellor Gordon Brown announced on April 9 he would delay a planned increase in the British gas tax. Brown also indicated he was shelving a proposed increase in the air-passenger tax. The decision delighted Tories, who opposed the taxes in the first place, and infuriated Labor Members of Parliament who seek stronger punishment of “anti-green” products and services.

Labor leaders noted that even before the freeze on carbon-based taxes, Britain was behind its Kyoto greenhouse gas reduction goals.

“The climate change strategy for reducing greenhouse gases is seriously off course, and current progress and future projections must be reviewed as a matter of urgency,” concluded a report issued by the Labor-dominated Commons environmental audit committee.

The Commons committee harshly criticized the government for failing to live up to emission reduction goals spelled out in a “white paper” on climate change policy. According to the Commons report, “The government has ducked some tough decisions and while the white paper is green enough, it has a thick yellow streak running right through it.”

According to the Commons report, the white paper is “a document full of sentiments with few practical policy proposals.” The committee concludes that under current policies and market conditions the British government cannot meet its renewable energy goals or its Kyoto emission reduction goals.

“This report is a damning indictment of the government’s failure to address the urgent issues facing our energy future,” said Tim Yeo, the Tory shadow trade and industry secretary.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.