According to the analysis of the Ministry of the Environment (MoE), it was estimated that Japan could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50 million tons (CO2 equivalent), which is equivalent to a 4% reduction compared to the 1990 base year.

Although GHG emissions increased by 8.7% (provisional) in the fiscal year 2007, MoE estimated that it would decrease by 1.4% in the third quarter of the fiscal year 2008 and approximately by 2.8% in the fourth quarter, leading to a 4 percent decrease in the fiscal year 2008. This unexpected great reduction of GHG emissions is due to the economic recession and resulting low economic activity in Japan.

Temporarily, this reduction seems beautiful. However, examined from the long-term viewpoint, it may not be so admirable because ‘economic recession’ and ‘temporary environmental improvements’ can become an unbeatable excuse of industry to avoid strict environmental policy. Though Japan’s economy contracted at an annualised 12.7 per cent in real terms in the third quarter of the fiscal year 2008, this was the SECOND worst after the Second World War. The worst occurred in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year 1974, influenced by the first oil crisis. At that time, its economy contracted at an annualised 13.1 per cent in real terms.

In the early 1970s, until the economic recession happened, Japanese environmental policy remarkably developed in response to four deadly pollution-related diseases including Minamata disease, Itai-itai disease, Yotsukaichi asthma, and Niigata Minamata disease, a wide range of serious pollution all over Japan and resulting strong public demand for pollution prevention. For instance, the ‘Pollution Diet’ was held in 1970, in which existing environmental regulations were modified or reinforced and new environmental regulations were also established. Further, in 1971, the Environmental Agency (EA) was created for integrated environmental administration so that environmental policy would be systematically planned and administered. Though Japanese industry often sought to interrupt establishment of strict environmental policies, it had to stand and deal with them in the early 1970s because of strong power of EA originated from great public support for pollution prevention.

However, after the economic recession, Japanese industry with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), started a counterattack on EA by using ‘economic recession’ and ‘temporary environmental improvements’ as an excuse. In the mid-1970s, the air quality did improve because of low economic activity though environmental policies enforced in the early 1970s contributed to it. For instance, emissions of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) increased every year and almost by 5% on average in the 1971 to 1973 fiscal years, it decreased by 9% in the fiscal year 1974 compared to its level in the fiscal year 1973. Consequently, Japanese industry succeeded in making the national ambient air quality standard for NOx eased (from 0.02ppm for a daily mean to 0.04ppm to 0.06ppm) in 1978. The relaxation of the ambient air quality standard was a must issue for some Japanese industries, such as the auto industry and the steal industry, because emission standards for both cars and factories were to be reinforced until the national ambient air quality standard was achieved.

While the national ambient air quality standard for NOx was the main target in the previous serious economic recession, what would be the main target for Japanese industry in the current economic recession? The target might be the mid-term goal of GHG reductions by 2010 because Japanese industry would have to suffer severe burdens unless the mid-term goal would be less strict. Actually, as discussed before, Japanese industry has strongly and actively sought to make the mid-term target less strict and nearly succeeded in making so.

Will history repeat itself?

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