Japan will adopt greener climate policies if the opposition, ahead in voter polls, wins an election this year and sticks to promises for greater use of renewable energy and bold cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
The main opposition Democratic Party, which could oust the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in an election due by October, has pushed for a boost to investment in clean energy projects and the launch of an emissions trading system.
It has also called for Japan to adopt a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, a much deeper cut than the target the government is expected to announce by June.
But big polluting industries, such as power generators, are likely to oppose deep emissions cuts, particularly during a severe recession.
Some analysts question the Democrats' ability to follow through on their ambitions once they face such resistance, but the party's lawmakers say they are committed to change.
In many aspects, the government's efforts have been inadequate and too passive, said lower house Democrat lawmaker Nobutaka Tsutsui, involved in crafting the party's environmental policies.
The government is too close to industries and has therefore been reluctant to impose policies that are seen hurting them, but our party will be free of such ties.
Climate policy has been an area where the Democrats have been able to differentiate themselves from the current government, which critics say has set lax climate policies catering to companies worried about additional costs.
Tsutsui said Japan needed tough, binding targets on biofuel and renewable energy use to slash emissions and avoid falling behind efforts by Europe and now the United States, where climate policies have tightened under President Barack Obama.
Japan, the world's fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, is far above its target based on the Kyoto Protocol climate pact to cut emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels between 2008-12.
Pressure is also growing on Japan from developing nations to do more to tackle its carbon emissions ahead of U.N.-backed climate talks at the end of the year.
Nearly 200 nations will meet in the Danish capital Copenhagen in December to try to agree on a tougher and broader climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
The Democrats and the LDP have yet to pitch their campaign pledges for the election and climate policy has not been a big focus for voters in the past.
But a stronger climate stance could become a vote-winner in the world's second-biggest economy this year, as governments worldwide try to create jobs and lift economies out of recession by supporting investment in green businesses.
The Democrats have called for investment in environmental projects to create 2.5 million jobs and the government plans to unveil its own version of a Green New Deal soon, including non-interest loans to green businesses.
More Japanese companies also see environmentally friendly products and a shift to cleaner energy as an opportunity, rather than a cost, and would be willing to foot additional spending despite financial constraints, analysts said.
TARGET PLAN MIGHT BACKFIRE
Companies realize that the United States, Europe and Japan are all shifting to a low-carbon society and changes are underway, such as in infrastructure, said Kuniyuki Nishimura, research director at the Mitsubishi Research Institute.
They will invest if they know that the business will yield profits in a few years' time, even if it doesn't make money right away.
The extent of change the Democrats can push through is unclear, however, since a number of party lawmakers, mainly those backed by industry unions, oppose a tougher climate stance and could speak out once policies become closer to reality.
Nishimura said the Democrats' medium-term emissions target might backfire by forcing companies to focus too much on cutting emissions over the next decade and leaving them with less money for longer-term projects.
The party also faces a policymaking process that is often slow because government ministries pursue different interests, although the Democrats have also vowed to reduce bureaucratic meddling.
Even if the Democrats were to be ambitious on climate policy, implementing measures will depend on how well they can get the bureaucracy to cooperate, said Junko Edahiro, an environmental journalist and president of e's Inc., which hosts speeches and seminars on the environment.
It may be difficult to deliver on their pledges 100 percent.
Still, the Democrats' will to change matters appears bigger than the LDP, so they will likely take action, said Edahiro, who is also a member of the government's top climate policy advisory panel.