When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote in the pages of the FT last year, he urged the world to act “swiftly” to tackle climate change and to take “more vigorous action”.
“Climate change can endanger the lives of all generations,” he wrote. “The problem is getting worse faster than expected.”
As Japan prepares to host the G20 summit later this month, the country’s commitment to climate action is about to be tested. The summit will set the tone for the world’s largest economies at a time when global carbon emissions are rising. New national climate targets are expected later this year under the Paris climate accord.
At previous G20 summits, the role of the United States – which under the Trump administration plans to withdraw from the Paris climate pact – has been highlighted. This year, closer scrutiny will focus on Japan’s climate record.
Japan is one of the few developed countries still building new coal-fired power plants. It is a major funder of coal projects internationally. This month it adopted a plan to become “carbon neutral” by the end of the century, but without naming a specific date. It kept its 2050 decarbonization target unchanged, aiming for an 80% reduction in emissions by then.
Ahead of the G20 summit in Tokyo, a growing number of Japanese companies called for more renewable energy. A letter signed this month by multinational tech company Fujitsu, conglomerate Sony, construction company Daiwa House and a dozen others urged the government to adopt a target of 50% renewable electricity by 2030.
Environmental groups have been highly critical of Japan’s policies. They argue that there is no plan to wean the country off its dependence on coal. “It’s a pretty unfortunate path,” says Kimiko Hirata, international director of Kiko Network, an environmental group. “Japan is lagging behind other countries when it comes to renewable energy,” she added, pointing out that 17 coal-fired power plants are under construction. “Current [climate policy] the situation in Japan has become quite bad.
A year ago, a heatwave that swept across the country, killing more than 1,000 people, highlighted the deadly effects of climate change, which is contributing to more frequent and severe heatwaves around the world.
Yet as the G20 summit approaches, Japan has come under fire for its climate record. Coal-fired power plants are a key source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.
It represents a big turnaround for a country that was once synonymous with climate action, having lent its name to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and subsequent suspension of Japan’s nuclear fleet, coal and gas consumption soared to help fill the void left by nuclear shutdowns.
Since 2012, about 50 new coal-fired power plants are planned in Japan, according to data from Kiko Network. Although 13 have been cancelled, another 13 are already operating.
With the future of nuclear power still unclear – many reactors are supposed to reopen, but this has been repeatedly delayed – coal is expected to continue to be part of Japan’s energy supply for decades. It provides about a third of Japan’s electricity today and is expected to produce a quarter in 2030, according to official forecasts.
International pressure to move away from coal has increased. A report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed last year that coal use should drop to zero by 2050, in order to limit global warming to 1.5C. and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Amid a global wave of ‘coal-free’ policies, the UK plans to phase out coal by 2025. France plans to close its coal-fired power stations by 2022. In Japan, some individual companies pledged not to fund new coal-fired power plants, including Mitsubishi and Marubeni. The government itself has not given a date for phasing out coal.
“After the nuclear accident, Japan could have taken many different paths,” says Han Chen, head of international policy at NRDC, an American environmental group. “Instead of investing in low-carbon growth, Japan just imported tons of coal and liquefied natural gas.” Estimates suggest that government-backed funding for international coal projects totaled around $15 billion between 2013 and 2018, according to the NRDC.
Many environmental activists say the G20 could be a powerful voice for climate policy, but they don’t expect it to be so this year. Japan’s draft G20 communiqué, they note, omits the phrases “global warming” and “decarbonization” and, compared to previous communiqués, downplays the Paris climate accord.
“I’m quite pessimistic,” says Ms. Hirata.
“Because Japan [has] trying to avoid dealing with the problem of climate change,” she argues, “that can’t send any strong signals to the outside world.”