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With Japan focused on the twin problems of energy supply and fiscal reform, it has quietly stepped back from its earlier pledges on the environment.

The Japanese government, busy trying to win parliamentary approval for its proposed sales tax hike, has so far been lukewarm on the United Nation’s “Rio Earth Summit” in Brazil on June 20-22, when politicians, businesses and non-governmental organizations from around the world will try to thrash out standards for sustainable development.

“We are not sure who will lead our delegation,” to the meeting, an official at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters on Wednesday. “It probably depends on how Parliament goes.”

The apparent lack of enthusiasm comes only three years after Japan won worldwide praise for its leadership on global environmental issues following its pledge to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020.

Why the shift?

After the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in March of last year, Japan’s energy priorities have completely changed.

In the financial year ended in March 2012, Japan imported 18% more liquefied natural gas compared with the previous year to keep its thermal-power plants running at full tilt as its nuclear plants were gradually shut down for regular maintenance and kept offline. Since the beginning of May, all of the country’s reactors have been shut down

The government is trying to win support for restarting idled reactors before the peak summer demand season to avoid the possible power shortages, but public concerns over safety mean it is unsure how many plants will come back online. With energy supplies tight, sticking to the original target of a 25% cut in C02 emissions by 2020 could limit Japan’s power-generating capacity and have a major impact on its economy.

Meanwhile, the euro-zone debt crisis has brought into sharp relief the need to reform Japan’s battered finances.

Credit rating agencies warn that, unless the country brings under control its public debt — the highest in the developed world at around twice annual economic output — it could face a financial crisis in the future.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is trying to push through a proposal to double the country’s sales tax to rein in the government’s fiscal deficit, despite lawmakers from his own ruling Democratic Party of Japan trying to scupper the bill.

With the government focused on the twin problems of energy supply and fiscal reform, it has quietly stepped back from its earlier pledges on the environment.

Officials said in autumn 2011 that they were “discussing” if Japan should stick to its CO2 target, and–once it decides who to send—the Japanese government is expected to oppose setting numerical targets for cutting emissions at the Rio meeting.

The Wall Street Journal, 7 June 2012