Apart from the distant buzz of a gardener’s strimmer, all is quiet at the Kyoto International Conference Center, its grey concrete walls matched by the sky on an afternoon in early December. Autumn leaves still cling to branches in the nearby forest, where groups of hikers plot their course in light trousers and T-shirts, as if to remind passersby of why Japan’s ancient capital became synonymous with the climate crisis.
The venue – best known for its appearance in the 1974 Robert Mitchum film The Yakuza – is deserted. Its doors are locked and signs dotting its lawns warn non-authorised personnel to keep out.
It is a far cry from the frantic activity of 25 years ago, when hundreds of journalists and campaigners, fuelled by coffee and takeaway bento boxes, awaited news of a breakthrough at Cop3 – the world’s first serious attempt to wean itself off fossil fuels.
On 11 December 1997, after negotiations that ran through the night, the Kyoto protocol was born, committing 160 parties – later 192 – to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% between 2008 and 2012.
The summit’s Japanese hosts hailed the agreement as a major breakthrough – the first time developed and developing countries had signed up to legally binding CO2 reduction targets.
“Cop3 was a good start, because it showed that the world had to change,” said Kenro Taura, executive director of Kiko Network, a Kyoto-based NGO. “Until then, most countries were determined to pursue economic growth based around the use of fossil fuels, but Kyoto convinced them that was not the right approach.”
The protocol was also an important step towards the Paris climate agreement. Derided by some as a failure because of the US refusal to ratify it, the agreement had some notable successes. It set out a global system of carbon trading, and in establishing many of the technical aspects of carbon accounting that are still in use, in modified forms, today.
The “top-down” system of setting countries’ emissions-cutting targets has since been abandoned in favour of “bottom-up” commitments known as nationally determined contributions, but the understanding that rich countries must take responsibility for their historic role in the climate crisis endures, and was one of the flashpoints at last month’s Cop27 UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
“The Kyoto protocol is regarded as an important milestone in climate action, as it was the first opportunity for countries to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Japan’s environment ministry said.
“In response to the Kyoto protocol, Japan will drive emission reductions not only in Japan but also in developing countries where emissions have increased significantly, thus contributing to the global emission reductions.”
The anniversary of the protocol, which came into force in 2005 – minus the US – passed almost unnoticed in its host city this week. Yet the absence of fanfare is misleading. In the quarter of a century since the summit, Kyoto city has positioned itself at the forefront of efforts to address climate change, even if Japan’s government has been found wanting.
In 2019, Kyoto became the first Japanese city to announce a net zero target by 2050, and, in March 2021, the first to join the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an international campaign to move away from coal-fired power generation.
In the two decades after Cop3, Kyoto halved the amount of waste it generated and cut energy consumption by 31%, according to Sayoko Matsumoto, manager of the city’s Do You Kyoto?project – named in honour of former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who used those words during a visit to the city in 2007 as a way of asking people if they were taking action to save the planet.
Kyoto was one of four Japanese cities to be named to CDP’s A-List for 2022 in recognition of its “bold action” on climate change. On the 16th of every month, – the date in February 2005 when the protocol went into effect – outdoor lighting is dimmed or turned off, commuters are encouraged to swap their cars for public transport and diners eat in restaurants lit by candles and lamps.
“The city feels a responsibility to lead on climate change, and that’s part of the legacy of Cop3,” Matsumoto said. “A lot of people in Kyoto may be too young to remember the actual summit, but they are aware of the climate crisis and the need to cooperate to help Kyoto achieve its net zero target.”
Japan’s government, by contrast, has struggled to build on the Cop3 legacy. As of last year, renewables accounted for just over 20% of Japan’s energy mix – significantly lower than Germany (49% in the first half of 2022) and Britain (39%). Nuclear accounts for just under 7%, with coal, oil and liquefied natural gas dominating Japan’s energy mix with a 74% share.
Its role in financing major oil, gas and coal projects earned Japan – the world’s fifth-biggest emitter of greenhouses gases – a “fossil award” from the Climate Action Network at the Cop27 summit.
More than a decade after the Fukushima crisis forced Japan to close reactors and increase fossil fuel imports, the government is again turning to nuclear to help it achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, to the dismay of environmental campaigners who believe the focus should be on renewables.
“The Japanese government is using the ‘we will do it with nuclear’ mantra as a way of delaying real work on climate change,” said Aileen Smith, executive director of Green Action.
“Nuclear power is expensive,” Smith said, citing plans by Kansai Electric Power, which serves the region where Kyoto is located, to spend over ¥1tn (£5.9bn) over the next five years on climate change, with 70% of that investment earmarked for the nuclear sector. “It means money will be spent on a less effective, more expensive way of reducing CO2 emissions. And it won’t be that long-lasting, since the nuclear plants are old.”
There was little evidence of any desire to burnish Kyoto’s legacy among the Japanese delegation at Cop27. Japan played a low-key role during the two-week conference, supporting moves to reaffirm the global target of limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, but without taking a significant public stance on the issue.
The country’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, did not attend the summit, putting him out of step with more than 100 world leaders who did.
Taura said Japan’s enthusiasm for nuclear restarts and cautious embrace of renewables showed that Japan had “learned nothing” from the Kyoto protocol or the triple meltdown in Fukushima.
“I think Europe has done more to take action that matches the spirit of the Kyoto protocol,” he said. “But Japan has consistently made the wrong choices. The decision to put increased nuclear power generation at the centre of its climate change policy is another setback to energy conservation and the promotion of renewable energy. Unfortunately, Japan has failed to build on the legacy of Kyoto.”