Updated: May 5, 2021
Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, committed Japan to reach a target of zero emissions of greenhouse gases and achieving a carbon-neutral society by 2050. It was widely praised by global media and climate watchers. While the pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions was lauded, very few observers picked up on the renewed push to restart Japan’s moribund nuclear reactors. The lack of any real policy measures suggest that there remains a lot to be discussed ahead of METI’s (June 2021) revision to the Energy Mix.
Japan is playing catch up. Suga’s statement was likely influenced by recent climate pledges from China, Europe, and the US. In September, Chinese President Xi announced that Beijing would aim to become carbon neutral by 2060. In the US, presidential candidate Joe Biden put forward a plan to achieve “100% clean energy” by 2050.
This seems like an easy win for PM Suga given that Japan has come in for some serious criticism from environmental groups, as the fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. ESG funds have also pressured (and won some victories) on Japan’s continued building and financing of coal-fired power plants.
The clock is ticking for Japan ahead of next year’s Climate Change Conference (COP 26) which will be held in Glasgow in November 2021. PM Suga has now shifted the debate from IF Japan will take action to WHEN and HOW.
What does carbon neutral actually mean?
PM Suga has drawn the policy outline, but without a concrete plan to achieve zero emissions or a mechanism to monitor progress, Japan could fall short of its Paris Agreement (26% reduction in emissions by 2030).
Japan may have to follow the EU’s lead and make a more ambitious target by COP 26. The EU’s emission reduction target for 2030 was updated from the previous 40% reduction to a more ambitious 60% currently.
The 2030 targets are just interim markers ahead of the zero goal by 2050. To fully pursue carbon neutrality countries need to offset emissions made in one sector by reducing them somewhere else. This can be done through investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, or other clean, low-carbon technologies. Suga’s policy speech recognised this, pushing divisive (yet emission-friendly) nuclear power and investing in carbon capture technologies.
Becoming ‘carbon zero’
In 2019, Japan sourced more than 73 percent of its electrical power supplies from thermal power. Renewable energy made up about 20 percent, while nuclear power, still recovering from the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima accident, made up just 7 percent.
Around 90% of Japan’s total GHG emissions come from energy-related activities, making these the most critical factor for its climate policy. Japan has around 45 GW of operating coal plants – the sixth-largest fleet in the world – according to the Global Coal Plant Tracker. So far, Japan has agreed to kill-off more than 100 domestic low-efficiency coal-fired power plants by 2030 but is still planning to construct new higher-efficiency plants.
All coal plants, old and new, will need to be phased out for electricity generation if Japan is to stand any chance of meeting more stringent targets. With a "fundamental shift" in policy on coal use, Japan can in the interim rely on natural gas to supply the base-load of electricity. More importantly, it will also require a dramatic shift to renewable energy. The Renewable Energy Institute think tank calls for a 45% renewable mix by 2030 if Japan is to stand any chance of honoring its global commitment. In practical terms, this will require a big push towards offshore wind energy.