Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, in his first speech to Japan Parliament since taking office last month committed his country to achieve a carbon-neutral society by 2050, with a “fundamental shift” in policy on coal use. He outlined the major move in his country’s attitude towards climate change. Responding to climate changes is not a constraint on economic growth and changes must be brought in with a view of taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structure and the economy that will bring about great growth. Innovation is key to achieving the goal, including next-generation solar cells and carbon recycling, and investment in research and development, as well as deregulation and “green investment”. Japan seeks climate leadership at G-20 summit but can’t kick its coal habit. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy and its fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, has come under intense criticism from international environmental groups for continuing to build and finance coal-fired power plants, both at home and abroad. It had previously made a commitment only to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 and achieve carbon neutrality in the second half of the century.
Now, however, it is following the footsteps of the European Union, which vowed last year to become carbon neutral by 2050, and China, where President Xi Jinping set a similar target for 2060 only last month. In 2017, Japan sourced more than 41 percent of its electrical power supplies from coal and oil, with natural gas accounting for almost 40 percent. Renewable energy made up about 16 percent, while nuclear power, still recovering from the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima accident, made up just 3 percent. Under its current Basic Energy Plan, it aims to increase the share of renewables to 22 to 24 percent by 2030, and nuclear power to between 20 and 22 percent, although it is expected to unveil new targets next year. If Japan and the rest of the world are to avoid the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis, it is precisely this kind of action that the world needs and needs to back up the announcement with a major shift toward renewable energy in its upcoming energy plan to make this a reality. Arguing that the Fukushima disaster shows that nuclear energy “has no place in a green, sustainable future,” Japan should aim to produce 50 percent of its electricity via renewable sources by 2030. The target would not be easy to meet unless bringing together all the country’s resources, including industry, government and academia, to achieve the goal while creating growth and business opportunities.
The government sees hydrogen as a new source of energy, while also having high expectations for offshore wind power. Coal would be a feasible source of power only to the extent it could be offset by carbon capture, utilization and storage technology. In the past, his ministry has been a strong backer of coal and nuclear power, but observers say it may hold less influence in the Suga administration than it did under his immediate predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Still, a shift was already underway toward the end of the Abe administration in response to international pressure and gradually changing public opinion. Japan’s banks were scaling back financing for coal power abroad, and the government said it would “in principle” no longer subsidize the construction of coal-power thermal plants overseas. Fitch Solutions, a financial market-risk analysis company, said the announcement will significantly boost Japan’s electric and hydrogen-powered vehicle sector, which has been lagging behind those of Asian peers such as China, Hong Kong and South Korea. For that potential to be fully realized, Japan will need to start decommissioning coal power to an absolute minimum, Japanese companies must stop building and financing new coal power abroad.