Japan is ‘past the time for face-saving gestures’ as it embarks on ambitious climate change agenda: Experts

BANGKOK: Experts have welcomed Japan’s pledge to pursue a carbon neutral future, but cautioned about a lack of detail on how the country might achieve such drastic emission cuts within three decades.

This week, the country’s new prime minister Yoshihide Suga moved Japan in step with its regional neighbours in pursuing a far more ambitious climate change agenda, by outlining a goal of cutting greenhouse gases to zero on a net basis by 2050.

For the fifth biggest carbon emitter in the world, the new pledge is a significant upgrade on a vague prior commitment to reaching that target sometime in the latter part of the century.

The decision is rooted in both economics and growing pressure on big polluters like Japan to do more to keep global world temperature rise to below two degrees, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives his first policy speech in parliament in Tokyo
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives his first policy speech in parliament as an extraordinary session opens in Tokyo, Japan, Oct 26, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

“Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth,” the prime minister said in an address to the National Diet.

“We need to change our thinking to the view that taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structure and the economy that will bring about great growth.”

It is a welcome pledge with much ambition, but very little detail, according to experts CNA spoke to in the aftermath of Mr Suga’s speech.

“The announcement is really good and in the right direction but now the challenge is for the Suga administration to flesh out the details. I think we should be waiting for what they have to say,” said Associate Professor Masahiro Sugiyama from the Institute of Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo.

The Japanese government has faced external pressures to match – or better – the pledges recently made by regional neighbours. South Korea affirmed plans for a ‘Green New Deal’ following President Moon Jae-in’s comprehensive election victory in May, and he used a speech in parliament this week to match Japan’s 2050 emission targets.

Perhaps more critically, China recently promised a “green revolution” and upgraded its climate targets to reach carbon neutrality before 2060.

READ: Commentary – Is China’s ambitious carbon pledge just lip service?

“I think it was done in haste. That’s my impression. We don’t have much of an analytical basis to make a sound judgement,” Assoc Prof Sugiyama said. He noted that the big announcement first, details later approach is uncommon in Japan, where technical understanding is seen as a prerequisite before action.

“They are making a pledge and coming to the details after. That might actually be good but I think it’s quite a big change in mindset,” he said. 

Transitioning to cleaner forms of energy production will inevitably pose major challenges to the Japanese economy. The cost of doing so will ask tougher questions of a society that has so far been an onlooker to the global green movement. 

“Prime Minister Suga should be congratulated for making Japan’s position on climate change so transparent. It’s good that Japan is now ready to get started,” said Ms Melissa Brown, director of Energy Finance Studies, Asia at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“We are well past the time when face-saving gestures will be sufficient, however.”

FILE PHOTO: Japan says it plans to be carbon-neutral after 2050, but will continue to use coal-fired
Japan says it plans to be carbon-neutral after 2050, but will continue to use coal-fired power plants. (AFP/Wojtek Radwanski)

FINDING THE RIGHT MIX

Overhauling its energy mix will be key to Japan’s climate change strategy. Prime Minister Suga did not mention many specifics, saying innovation and reform would lead the changes. 

Industry watchers expect hydrogen to form a central role down the line, while natural gas may help fill gaps as the country transitions to being cleaner.

“If we’re looking at potential recalibration, I think the hydrogen sector will be one to watch for. I believe the government will push strongly for its hydrogen strategy to achieve those goals,” said Ms Daine Loh, a power and renewables analyst at Fitch Solutions.

However, she expressed doubt over whether Japan would be able to reach its emission goals, saying they were “too ambitious” given the country’s overwhelmingly high dependence on thermal sources for power generation.

Renewables only provided approximately 18 per cent of the country’s power needs last year. Just 7.4 per cent came from solar, with the rest still being generated by dirtier sources. It is a number that would need to dramatically increase and quickly if Japan wants to reach its target.

“An orderly transition consistent with keeping global warming to 1.5°C will require renewables to make up 50 per cent of the Japanese energy mix by 2030, with only limited use of coal and gas,” Asia Investor Group on Climate Change Executive Director, Rebecca Mikula-Wright said in a statement. 

FILE PHOTO: A school student holds a sign as she takes part in the global students strike for actio
A school student holds a sign as she takes part in the global students strike for action on climate change in Tokyo. (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-hoon/File Photo)

While the International Energy Agency now says that solar energy is the cheapest available form of electricity production across the world, the same cannot be said for Japan, where cripplingly high prices have stifled the rollout of renewables.

“Unless we cut the costs substantially, sooner or later we’re going to run into serious problems because renewables will be a significant component of the energy mix,” Assoc Prof Sugiyama said.

“It’s correct for the Japanese government to push for offshore wind and wind power but we have to really craft the policy very carefully to cut the costs very fast.”

Being left behind on renewables investments is a symptom of government ministries and bodies failing to read global momentum away from fossil fuels in the pursuit of domestic energy security, Ms Brown said.

“They collectively mis-analysed the speed and breadth of energy transition and failed to appreciate how cost-competitive renewables would transform global energy markets,” she added. 

“They are exiting coal, pushing LNG as a so-called ‘clean transition’ fuel, and trying to find partners to support their hydrogen aspirations. These are not the wrong strategies. The problem is that they are five years behind the curve and missed the opportunity to be a market leader.”

FILE PHOTO: The reactor units 1 to 4 are seen over storage tanks for radioactive water are seen at
The reactor units No.1 to 4 are seen over storage tanks for radioactive water at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (REUTERS/Issei Kato/File Photo)

Decommissioning inefficient coal power plants is on the government’s agenda, but the extent and effectiveness of these measures remain unclear.

Indeed, the country remains committed to plans to build more coal power plants, with 11 GW of coal of capacity under construction or in the pipeline, as of September last year. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, an independent financial think tank, it could leave Japan with US$71 billion of stranded assets.

This reliance on fossil fuels followed the desperate need for domestic energy, which was crippled following the shutdown of nuclear energy plants after the Fukushima meltdown disaster. Nearly a decade on, Japan remains encumbered by the controversies surrounding its nuclear energy infrastructure.

READ: Japan fishermen oppose ‘catastrophic’ release of Fukushima water to ocean

Next year’s anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami is expected to be a painful reminder of the dangers nuclear energy poses, rather than of the clean power it could provide to the nation. Due to the perceived unpopularity of nuclear among voters, the previous administration led by Shinzo Abe largely avoided the subject, especially around election time. 

“We’ll have to see what the government is thinking in terms of energy mix. Do you go with nuclear again or not? There will be a political battle,” Assoc Prof Sugiyama said.

Nuclear remains a cornerstone resource in Japan’s current energy plan and is supposed to provide 22 per cent of national power from nuclear reactors by 2030. Only a handful are currently operating.

“To change the industry, we have to talk about it and it was a missed opportunity. The Suga administration now has to deal with the deep, complicated issues the Abe administration didn’t finish or touch on,” he said.

A ‘GREAT OPPORTUNITY’

Heavy manufacturing industries like steel making, cement and petrochemicals are important sectors of the economy where transitioning to cleaner outputs may prove more difficult. The industrial sector contributes one-third of Japan’s carbon emissions.

“That creates a challenge for mitigation. We don’t know how to reduce emissions greatly or fast enough,” Assoc Prof Sugiyama said.

READ: Japan’s climate change efforts hindered by biased business lobby, says study

Industry heavyweights hold sway in the Japanese political sphere and sit on many advisory committees. It is expected that they will push back against this ambitious environmental agenda.

That type of lobbying is not being offset by any groundswell of climate awareness or calls for action among most the Japanese general public. Due to the high cost, there has been less enthusiasm in the private sector to embrace any kind of behavioural shifts.

With these new targets, however, it seems impossible for power consumers to avoid absorbing some of the short-term costs of such an overhaul.

Protesters wearing masks of world leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demonstrated
Protesters wearing masks of world leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demonstrated against climate change and coal during the G20 summit in Osaka in Jun 2019. (AFP/Pak YIU)

“We are not seeing any rise of a climate movement. Once we see the details of this policy and pledge, we will see the impacts and that will be the moment whether we Japanese can see whether we’ll accept this pledge,” Assoc Prof Sugiyama said.

This is despite the country already feeling the effects of climate change. Its agricultural and fishing industries are highly vulnerable and natural disasters are forecast to hit with increased regularity and intensity. 

Higher temperatures will make Japan’s dense cities more uncomfortable, more exposed to tropical disease outbreaks and pose health risks to an ageing population.

The government is expected to roll out an updated national power plan in mid 2021 with a clearer roadmap for the decades to come. Until then, there will be hanging questions over how Japan can recalibrate its economy and attitudes towards climate change.

“This is a great opportunity. It’s a wake up call for all the people of Japan and we need to welcome that,” Assoc Prof Sugiyama said. “It’s not just a matter for politicians, it’s us.”