Questioning the Effectiveness of Environmental Regime: The Case of Japan

Colin Jun is a first-year IR student at King’s from South Korea. His interest relates to the vital issues facing the Asia-Pacific region, from security concerns of East Asia to development in SE Asia.

Japanese Minister of the Environment Shinjiro Koizumi stated in COP25 meeting that Japan has a plan to build coal-fired plants continuously. The justification behind this decision was simple: As the economic power, Japan still needs a lot of cheap energy. Going against the global trend of reducing the reliance on coal-powered energy, Japanese government faced severe criticisms from inside and outside of the country. 2000 people from 25 prefectures participated in the march for climate change, while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated that Japan has “coal addiction.” The interesting point, though, is the fact that Japan is one of the signatories of COP21, the Paris Agreement, and established its goal as reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent below 2013 levels by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050 under the Paris Agreement. Yet, their decision to continuously support coal-power energy, which produces carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide during its combustion, seems like going against its own goal for the economic cause. Accordingly, the question now is whether the environmental regimes are effective in bringing changes to the environmental behavior of the countries in the international community – are they strong enough to convince the countries to choose it over economic factors?

Environmental regime, or international environmental regime, refers to a system which manages the environment in a global level through the environmental regulations or conventions among the countries. One of the most commonly known (and related to Japan) is ‘climate regime,’ which attempts to solve the climate change. Through creating the COP25 (Paris Agreement on Climate Change), building Climate Action Network for NGOs and establishing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international community developed the system which the countries can take control on climate change collaboratively. Ideally, with the agreement on the principles, the countries were supposed to voluntarily implement the national policies in accordance with the international environmental regime, since the majority of the international conventions do not have enforcement measures in it.

The biggest challenge on operating such regime, however, is the economic considerations each country has to make. Going back to the case of Japan, currently one third of Japanese electricity relies on coal-powered energy. Moreover, after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the fear towards the nuclear energy, one of the renewable energies, rose within the country, which led reliance on coal-powered energy to be higher than before. Consequently, changing from coal-powered energy to renewable energy for the climate change is not economically easy decision for Japan. Since the renewable energy is less efficient in the production of energy than the coals, Japan will have to face increasing energy price if they make changes in the energy supply chain. This increase in energy price, in return, will increase the cost of production for Japanese goods and increase the price of the products overall. As the 4th largest export economy in the world, increasing cost of production only means Japanese products losing competitiveness in the international market. Accordingly, staying with the coal-powered energy, until it is possible, is economically the better choice for Japan. Hence, this economic consideration led Japan to partially ignore the climate regime in its national policy and place emphasis on coal-powered energy.

This is not just the issue of Japan. As we can see from the case of Japan, the environmental regime, especially the climate regime, seems like it is losing its effectiveness in the global stage to the economic calculations. For instance, China has also continuously building larger number of coal plants within the country to benefit from the economically efficient coal-powered energy. United States even decided to opt out from the Paris Accord, since the carbon regulation has negative impacts on its economy. As the developed countries placing less effort on executing the climate regime, the participation by the developing countries to the climate regime is declining as well. For instance, South Asian countries received 1.3 billion dollars for starting coal-fire power generation project in South Asia from Japan in 2019. For the classical realists, this is the natural phenomena – the international regime could not work at first hand. Since all the countries are only looking after their national interests, the economic interests in this case, it is difficult for the countries to cooperate on the common interest of climate change which has possibility of hampering their economic growth. Accordingly, the international environmental regime is supposed to fail from its creation.

As such, the international environmental regime does not provide enough reasoning for the countries to take actions according to the regime. With their economic interests placed ahead, the states often choose the economic factors ahead of the common environmental factors. Especially, since the international regimes do not have any enforcement measures, the countries have higher possibility for ignoring the regime. Hence, although Japan made the choice that has negative externalities to the environment, it is difficult for the international community to just blame Japan for going against the regime. Instead, it is better for the international community to strengthen the regime through increasing specificity to the regime with consideration of economic and social circumstances (rather than setting a single ambitious goal) and increasing interconnectivity between the international institutions and national governments to better implement the regime’s agenda to national agenda.



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