When Mother Nature Stalls a Country's Climate Fight

Officials and journalists stand near a tank where radioactive water spilled at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The plant's meltdown following a 2011 tsunami has caused a dramatic shift in Japan's power supply and climate goals. (National Journal)

Japan is taking heat this week for dramatically lowering its emissions goals, but it's not as if the country suddenly stopped caring about climate change. The island nation's spiking dependence on fossil fuels can be traced to the 2011 tsunami that caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — and the subsequent closures of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors over safety concerns.

Nuclear made up more than a quarter of Japan's power supply before the disaster, and replacing it with coal and natural gas has pushed the country's emissions pace back up. The international community isn't happy about Japan's revised greenhouse-gas targets, but the new goals are a function of a beleaguered power system that is still adjusting to post-tsunami reality. Here's how we got here:

2007-2010  —  Japan's emissions fall nearly 7 percent (including a 16-year low in 2009), though some of that is attributable to the global recession.

Sept. 16, 2009  —  Japan's parliament confirms Yukio Hatoyama as the country's new prime minister; Hatoyama affirms campaign pledges to lower Japan's emissions 25 percent by 2020 (from 1990 levels). By comparison, the U.S. has pledged to cut emissions 17 percent over that same timeframe.

March 11, 2011  —  An earthquake leads to a tsunami that strikes and cripples the Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing meltdowns in the second-largest nuclear disaster in history. Many of Japan's nuclear plants close over safety concerns.

2011-2012  —  Emissions rise 6 percent, nearing 2007 levels. Imports of liquefied natural gas, another way to fuel power plants, climb 12 percent in 2011 and 11 percent in 2012. Japan is the world's largest importer of natural gas.

Sept. 15, 2013  —  The country shuts down its last operating nuclear-power reactor for maintenance, leaving it completely reliant on other forms of energy.

Nov. 15, 2013  —  Japan announces it is lowering its emissions goal. The long-touted 25-percent reduction level now stands at 3.8 percent. Put in perspective — In 2009, emissions were less than 2 percent above 1990 levels and had dropped 11 percent in just two years. Now, that progress has been erased and the country's ambition is essentially a return to 2009 levels — with a slight lowering thrown in — by the end of the decade.

Japan's struggles highlight some of the ongoing debates climate activists are having. Earlier this month, a group of scientists called for an expansion of nuclear power to help lower emissions. Other environmentalists countered that renewables are the only solution, citing safety issues with nuclear.

Meanwhile, scientists are sending increasing signals that even our most ambitious climate goals might not be good enough. One U.N. study operated under the assumption that every country meets its self-assigned emissions goals — and that was before Japan reduced its targets. It found that emissions will still be 18 to 27 percent above the levels needed to stave off climate change's worst effects without significant cost burdens.

It's not all bad news. Solar power has boomed in the wake of Fukushima, putting Japan on pace to become the world's leading solar market. Offshore wind turbines just went online off the coast of Fukushima, signaling a reinvestment in energy in that region. And natural-gas imports have fallen slightly in 2013, though some of that may be due to some coal plants coming back online. But for a country that a few years ago was a world leader with its ambitious targets and emissions reductions, feeling the world community's ire for incremental goals can't feel much like progress.