Japan has long been recognized as one of the global leaders in battling climate change. It is arguably the most energy-efficient country in the world. It uses only one-fourth the amount of energy that China does to make a given quantity of goods.
And it has led the industrialized countries in developing technologies to improve energy efficiency, reduce pollution, and cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
A recent study conducted by the European Patent Office, the United Nations Environment Program, and the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, found that Japan was "the source of almost 80 percent of all innovations developed worldwide in the field of clean energy technologies", leading the United States, Germany, Republic of Korea, France and the United Kingdom.
Last year, Yukio Hatoyama, then Japanese prime minister, pledged that by 2020 Japan would reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent, compared with 1990 levels.
The United Nations and others praised Japan for shouldering its responsibilities, unlike many other developed nations.
However, at the start of this week's climate change negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, Japan announced that it would not extend the Kyoto Protocol - the binding international treaty that commits most of the developed countries to emission cuts - when it expires at the end of 2012.
Japan's announcement is ironic given that the only legally binding treaty under the 1997 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is named for the beautiful ancient city of Kyoto.
The Kyoto Protocol has played an effective role not only in cutting GHG emissions but also in spurring technological and innovative research in green development.
According to the recent study, the patenting of green technologies surged after more than 190 countries adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.
"Political decisions can be important in creating a framework to stimulate the development of technologies, which are considered to be crucial to the efforts to address climate change," the study says.
Now, however, Japan wants to bury the treaty it gave birth to.
No wonder its announcement has upset delegates, members of non-government organizations, and observers from around the world, including some Japanese activists.
I met one observer who was actually named "Kyoto"; he told me he was aware of his government's position, but disagreed with it.
Mayuko Yanai of the Friends of the Earth Japan was even more explicit: "The Japanese people are proud of the Kyoto Protocol and the role we played in its creation, and we expect our government to be a climate leader. That my government is now trying to destroy this treaty that bears a Japanese name is a disgrace."
Japanese negotiators argue that the treaty is "outdated" because two biggest emitters in the world, the United States and China, are not legally bound by it and the countries that signed the protocol contribute only 27 percent of global emissions.
But Japan should not forget that it has been one of the top five CO2 emitters for more than two decades. Its per capita CO2 emissions reached 10.1 tons in 2006, an increase of 0.6 percent over 1990, according to a United Nations Human Development report this year. Germany, a major manufacturing country, reduced its per capita GHG emission by 1.4 percent to 9.7 tons in the same period. The average Chinese carbon footprint was 4.6 tons, less than half the Japanese figure.
Japan must not shirk its responsibility or risk blocking progress in climate change talks.
"The (Japanese) government claims it believes most Japanese people support this position. This misunderstanding makes climate change all the more likely," according to Yanai.
Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, put it even more bluntly.
"The Kyoto Protocol for all its flaws is the only instrument we have that ensures the emission cuts required by science can happen," he said.
"For the Japanese government to walk away from that agreement - risking its collapse - would leave us with no guarantee that emissions will be reduced. That could mean a 4 C increase in temperatures, or even worse, a disaster for the planet."
The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily currently covering Cancun talks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(China Daily 12/03/2010 page8)