What is Japan doing to fight climate change?

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At a special session convened in the fall of 2020, then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called on Japan to become a “carbon-free society” by 2050.

A year later, the Sixth Strategic Energy Plan was approved by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s cabinet. Decarbonizing the grid will play an important role in achieving this 2050 target while reducing national emissions by 46% by 2030. About 40% of Japan’s emissions come from the electricity sector. The use of fossil fuels in Japan increased after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, which soured public opinion against nuclear power, leading the government to dismantle dozens of nuclear power plants. In 2019, fossil fuels accounted for around 70% of total energy production.

Controversially, the strategic energy plan still authorizes 19% coal (previously 26%) and provides for 20 to 22% nuclear energy (compared to 6% previously), a target that will require the restart of around 30 nuclear reactors. (The country currently has only eight candidates.) But there is an upcoming House of Councilors election, in which discussing nuclear power policy could be unavoidable.

Japan’s energy plan aims to increase the percentage of electricity generated from renewable energy in 2030 to between 36% and 38% (from 18% in 2019). The country’s renewable energy capacity is already the sixth in the world and its solar power generation capacity is the third.

This helps explain why Japan scored 87% in the Corporate Knights Earth Index report*, indicating that in 2019 the country was relatively on track to meet its 2030 climate commitments.

The Japanese government’s implementation plan to achieve carbon neutrality also emphasizes accelerating offshore wind power, bioenergy and hydrogen technology (including support for vehicle development hydrogen railways and steelmaking technology).

In transportation, Japan has largely focused on promoting sales of hybrid vehicles. According to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association, the number of new electric vehicles sold in 2020 was around 15,000, or only about 0.6% of total vehicle sales. As part of the green growth strategy, the government recently set a target: by 2035, all new cars sold will be ‘clean energy vehicles’. Although hybrids are included in this definition, they are no longer eligible for subsidies. To achieve the clean vehicles target, the government will install 30,000 fast chargers – four times the current number – by 2030 and provide financial support to companies working to increase storage battery capacity.

In response to the government’s goal, Toyota Motor Corp. announced that it will invest four trillion yen in 30 models of battery electric vehicles by 2030.

Like many countries, Japan relies heavily on technological developments in energy, including carbon capture and storage, to achieve its carbon neutral goals. It is difficult to accurately predict the success or failure of various technological developments and innovations.

To meet its climate targets, an official from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry says the government hopes to onboard more companies: “At this stage, we would like to accelerate public-private efforts.

In January, the Prime Minister spoke at the World Economic Forum’s virtual Davos event. He acknowledged that the journey towards meeting Japan’s climate goals is “extraordinarily difficult”, citing strong public distrust of nuclear power and the high cost of renewables due to the country’s steep mountains. The prime minister said Japan is now “determined to boldly adopt policies that have been politically difficult in the past, against the backdrop of the public’s sense of urgency to address climate change.”

However, even with such enthusiasm, unless the government’s position on nuclear energy policy is clarified, its goals in the Strategic Energy Plan could become empty theory and nothing more.

Needless to say, technical and financial resources are essential to achieve this goal in Japan, but strong political leadership will also be required.


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