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Japan plans 25 per cent cut in emissions

Japan's Prime Minister-elect says his government will follow through on a campaign pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by 2020. It is a more aggressive goal than the previous administration's, which would have cut emissions by only 8 per cent from 1990 levels.

The reduction, which will be measured from 1990 levels, was immediately hailed by environmentalists, who are watching target proposals closely ahead of a major international climate conference in December. Prime Minister Taro Aso's current plan was to cut emissions by about 8 per cent.

"Japan's change in government will bring a major shift to our climate change policies, through international negotiations for the future of human society, and I want to begin in a way that is said to have made a major contribution," said Yukio Hatoyama, who is widely expected to be named prime minister next week when parliament meets to choose Aso's successor.

Hatoyama leads the Democratic Party of Japan, which won last month's elections in a landslide, pushing Aso's party from power for only the second time in more than 50 years. Hatoyama said Japan would adopt the 25-per cent goal, which was one of the Democrats' campaign pledges, in a speech at an environmental forum in Tokyo.

The pledge comes ahead of a United Nations conference in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, where world leaders hope to forge a new agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012.

In the run-up to the conference, proposed levels of greenhouse gas reductions have been a major point of contention, pitting environmentalists who say drastic cuts are needed against business leaders who are wary of increased costs.

Greenpeace International Climate Policy Director Martin Kaiser called the Japanese pledge a "major step forward," but it still fell short of the 40 per cent reduction the group says is needed from industrialized countries.

"This is a clear-cut signal to major world leaders, especially President Obama," Kaiser said in a telephone interview.

A US Congress bill approved by the House of Representatives would cut emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. It would mark a rare piece of climate change legislation in the US, but the plan still falls short of many other industrial countries' proposals, which use 1990 as a benchmark from which to cut emissions. According to EU data, US output of greenhouse gases rose 15 per cent from 1990 to 2005.

The bill, which must still be approved by the Senate, is strongly opposed by some lawmakers, who have said it will raise energy costs and destroy jobs.

Japanese business leaders are also wary of significant reduction targets that they say could hurt their country's competitiveness. A report released last month by the Keidanren, a powerful business lobby, stated that "emission cut targets should be balanced internationally."

The 27-nation European Union has already agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 - a number that could be increased to 30 percent if other countries sign on.

Tokyo's previous goal, released in June by Aso's government, matched pledges from other countries but was widely criticized as inadequate by environmentalists.

Many are eager to see Japan once again take the lead in environmental issues. The country hosted the Kyoto conference in 1997 and is home to producers of some of the world's leading environmental technologies, including advanced solar panels and top-selling hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius.

"For a long time, everybody has been waiting for everybody else to move in the negotiations. Now, Japan has taken a bold step forward and set an ambitious target. I hope this will inspire other countries to follow suit," said Connie Hedgaard, Denmark's climate minister, who will host the Copenhagen summit.

One of the issues the Copenhagen conference will have to tackle is how — or even whether — rich and poor countries will share the burden of reducing emissions. The Kyoto treaty set mandatory caps on emissions for 37 wealthy countries but made no demands on other nations.

Developing countries point out that industrialized ones are most responsible for past emissions and thus should shoulder most of the cuts. They also argue they are less able to weather restrictions on their growth and have asked for financial assistance in cutting their greenhouse gases. Wealthy countries, however, note that many developing nations now contribute significantly to emissions levels.

Hatoyama said the new Japanese government was considering whether to propose that richer countries provide financial and technical assistance in environmental areas to developing ones.

He said if he is elected prime minister next week, a near certainty, he will attend a Sept. 22 gathering of world leaders to discuss climate change at United Nations headquarters in New York.