Japan’s latest emissions data is in: For the year beginning April 2022, greenhouse gas emissions were down 19.3% from their peak in fiscal 2013. But after removals are factored in, that modest progress still leaves 1,085 megatons of emissions as the nation strives toward a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

And the unfortunate reality, experts say, is that Japan isn’t anywhere close to being on track for this target.

Fossil fuels remain a critical component of the nation’s energy mix: Japan generates just 23% of its energy from renewables, far behind China, at 30%, and Europe, where in many countries the share exceeds 40%. The latest major legislation aimed at addressing the climate crisis, the green transformation law, has been critiqued by nonprofits as being unambitious, impractical or both.

Japan's lack of climate action is readily apparent to outside observers: For the fourth time, Japan was given a “fossil” award by the Climate Action Network in 2023.

At the heart of the issue is an age-old tug-of-war between economic and environmental interests, with the Environment Ministry typically playing a subservient role to the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

But in spite of a variety of factors colliding to make Japan a laggard, there are still a few key politicians moving the nation forward on climate change, providing some hope that Japan can move toward being a leader in the coming years.

Structural forces slowing change

While not on the scale of those in other countries, there have been various attempts at climate action in Japan by activists and even politicians.

Still, this relative quiet is reflected by leaders such as the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was hardly outspoken on the issue, and the country’s current leader, Fumio Kishida, who hasn’t placed anything like the emphasis on climate as he has issues such as economic reform and Japan’s declining population.

Experts say that Japan isn’t anywhere close to being on track for its decarbonization target, but some politicians are pushing for more aggressive action on climate change.
Experts say that Japan isn’t anywhere close to being on track for its decarbonization target, but some politicians are pushing for more aggressive action on climate change. | Bloomberg

Phillip Lipscy, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Global Japan, explains that while there is high support in principle for climate action among voters, there is almost no support for cost-bearing measures, such as higher taxes on gasoline or energy consumption.

“Electoral reform in the 1990s changed the Japanese system towards a more majoritarian system, which shifted politicians to make mass-oriented appeals,” Lipscy says. “That shift basically unraveled Japan’s strategy to promote energy conservation, which had been to impose very high costs on energy consumption.”

Insofar as the government has taken on the challenge of decarbonization, it has placed great emphasis on technologies that are yet to be proven at scale, such as carbon capture and storage as well as the co-firing of hydrogen and ammonia with coal. Indeed, the green transformation law aims to develop the supply chain for ammonia and hydrogen, despite criticism that this promotes continued coal-burning.

“It’s readily apparent that Japan’s (climate policy) relies heavily on paths that are not realistic, such as hydrogen and ammonia fuel,” says Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies. “(Sustainable Development Goals) and the idea of ‘net zero’ has become a national front, but it’s a colossal fiction.”

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has also established close ties with regional power companies and the Japan Business Federation — the country’s top business lobby, which is better known as Keidanren — forming an “iron triangle” that stubbornly resists a renewable energy shift.

“Major power companies (tend to) reject renewable energy initiatives,” explains Hiroshi Ohta, a researcher working on climate politics and policy at Waseda University. “Although these companies can no longer legally operate both (power generation and distribution), they still control energy distribution. The lack of incentives for fundamental structural transformation in the energy system makes it easy for the conservative bloc to maintain the status quo.”

People visit Oritsu Beach near a wind farm in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, in April 2020. Japan generates just 23% of its energy from renewables, far behind China, at 30%, and Europe, where in many countries the share exceeds 40%.
People visit Oritsu Beach near a wind farm in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, in April 2020. Japan generates just 23% of its energy from renewables, far behind China, at 30%, and Europe, where in many countries the share exceeds 40%. | Bloomberg

In government, LDP leaders have shuffled the responsibility for climate change policy from the more liberal Environment Ministry over to METI.

“METI and the LDP mostly see eye to eye on climate policy,” Lipscy says. “Usually METI and MOE (the Environment Ministry) disagree on how much of an emphasis Japan should put on things such as climate targets, but it has been typical for METI to win these battles.” The green transformation law gives even more power to METI by putting the ministry in charge of the tentative carbon tax and trade system introduced by the legislation.

A final obstacle to policy change is the fact that nongovernmental organizations lack a significant voice in environmental policymaking.

“In Japan, all of the policymaking is controlled by bureaucrats, politicians and businesses,” says Ohta. “There’s really no room for NGOs to take substantive part.” The World Wildlife Federation Japan is one of the main nongovernmental actors working to make its voice heard on climate.

Chief Conservation Officer Naoyuki Yamagishi explains that, while the WWF does engage in direct lobbying of both METI officials and lawmakers, it only happens occasionally when environmental or energy plans and laws are explicitly being debated in parliament.

The Suga moment

The 2020 pledge to go carbon-neutral was a landmark moment in Japanese climate politics and policy. It was made possible by then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who was influenced by two of the strongest LDP voices on the environment in his Cabinet — Taro Kono and Shinjiro Koizumi.

Then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22, 2021.
Then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22, 2021. | White House / via Bloomberg

Ohta points out that while Suga himself had little interest in climate change or the energy transition, Kono was open to the steps these would take and keenly aware of the international trend toward decarbonization. With the European Union's Green Deal and Xi Jinping’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge as looming pressures, Suga embraced ideas from Koizumi and Kono.

“These three politicians are all from the same district of Kanagawa, so they know each other well,” Ohta said. “It was quite sudden — and very surprising for METI.” The resulting declaration remains a pillar of climate policy — even if whether it can be achieved remains a weighty question.

Amid pressures from global conflict and major solar and wind projects that are struggling to connect to the grid, Japan approved substantial energy price hikes last year. It has yet to be seen if these rising costs will put pressure on politicians and power companies to finally galvanize lasting change.

Voices from the opposition

Nuclear energy continues to play a significant role in Japan’s energy policy. But ever since the Fukushima disaster, this has become one of the major dividing issues in Japanese politics, with opposition parties such as the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan advocating for zero nuclear energy dependence. Accordingly, many outspoken voices on rapid energy policy change come from the CDP.

The CDP, however, is struggling to gain enough traction among voters to challenge the LDP and even fend off challenges from other parties.

On that front, Nippon Ishin no Kai, once a Kansai-centric party but which now has much larger ambitions, beat out the CDP in a media poll last year. But the party, which is conservative in some facets but progressive in others, does not even include the environment or climate in its list of key policies.

Shikoku Electric Power's Ikata nuclear plant in Ikata, Ehime Prefecture. Ever since the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power has become one of the major dividing issues in Japanese politics.
Shikoku Electric Power's Ikata nuclear plant in Ikata, Ehime Prefecture. Ever since the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power has become one of the major dividing issues in Japanese politics. | REUTERS

Indeed, voters looking specifically for candidates emphasizing environmental issues would be hard-pressed to find a match, irrespective of the party.

“There have to be more politicians who can talk about (the climate issue) with their own words and with real interest and passion, based on the net zero vision,” says the WWF’s Yamagishi. “We don’t see politicians put their promises on climate at the heart of their campaign pledges (during) elections. This needs to be changed.” In the halls of power, climate-friendly voices may be few and far between, but here are some of the key movers and shakers in Japan’s environmental politics:

Reformer looking to future-proof Japan

While not the most outspoken politician on the issue, Kono has a track record of being serious in his commitment to addressing the climate crisis. A recording of Kono yelling in frustration for getting stonewalled on climate targets during a meeting with officials from the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy as well as the Cabinet Office was even leaked to the media, seemingly in hopes of antagonizing the politician in the public eye. Kono has a long track record of dissenting on Japan’s feeble renewable energy policy.

"For too long, Japan has turned a blind eye to global trends, such as the dramatic decrease in the price of renewables and the inevitable shift to decarbonization in the face of climate change," Kono said back in 2018.

However, his current role as the minister for digital transformation, marked by several bumps and scandals, has taken him away from the climate fray.

Environment-focused former minister

Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, burst on to the climate scene as a youthful and active minister of the environment in 2019 — fast becoming the most energetic voice of the ministry in years. Although his gaudy style led to widespread criticism while he was in the spotlight, as minister, Koizumi put forth short-term targets in line with the goal of net zero by 2050.

He also improved relations between the Environment Ministry and the Japan Business Federation, positioning the concept of a circular economy that recaptures waste as a resource for production as a part of the lobby group’s strategy.

"We need more than an energy transition — we need a fundamental redesign of our society's economy," Koizumi told Circular Economy Hub in 2021.

Then-U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry meets then-Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi in Tokyo on Aug. 31, 2021.
Then-U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry meets then-Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi in Tokyo on Aug. 31, 2021. | Pool / via REUTERS

Now as a regular member of the House of Representatives, Koizumi is highly active on environmental issues, and has recently worked on a number of initiatives to eliminate plastic pollution.

As recently as November, Koizumi received the most votes from the public in a prime minister suitability poll of LDP lawmakers, so perhaps his real moment is yet to come.

Renewables advocates

CDP lawmakers Tetsuro Fukuyama, Makoto Yamazaki and Tomoko Abe are all major advocates of a rapid renewable energy transition without the use of nuclear energy.

Fukuyama, whose career has seen him tackle environmental issues, is a proponent of breaking down regional power companies’ monopolies and opening Japan’s energy grids to independent producers.

Yamazaki, meanwhile, has continuously fought for zero nuclear energy policies, taking to the streets to encourage young people to organize, and he is also working on reforming the structure of Japanese industry to promote a fossil fuel-free economy.

Abe, for her part, has helped turn attention to climate disaster-prevention after last year’s landslides in Kyushu, in addition to her work on halting PFAS pollution. These chemicals not only have negative health effects, while their production emits a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

People visit Oritsu Beach near a wind farm in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, in April 2020. Japan generates just 23% of its energy from renewables, far behind China, at 30%, and Europe, where in many countries the share exceeds 40%.
People visit Oritsu Beach near a wind farm in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, in April 2020. Japan generates just 23% of its energy from renewables, far behind China, at 30%, and Europe, where in many countries the share exceeds 40%. | Bloomberg

Nippon Ishin’s outlier

While Nippon Ishin lacks a strong stance on environmental issues, party member and Hyogo Prefecture lawmaker Daisuke Katayama has been anything but silent. A strong critic of the LDP’s basic energy plans, Katayama has also advocated for METI to better involve the Environment Ministry in energy discussions.

"It feels like (the current energy mix policy) is trying to use the possibility of technological innovations as an excuse to maintain the status quo," Katayama told Energy Shift in 2020. "It is a contradiction to advocate decarbonization while accepting coal-fired plants. It's irresponsible to count on technological developments to solve this contradiction."

Protector of green spaces

Akiko Kando is one of the leaders of Japan’s Green Party. Although the party lacks any representation at the national level, Kando has still been a voice for change. In the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, Kando has been an outspoken opponent of commercial-oriented development that takes away precious green space from the capital.

The Green Party also supports a lawsuit arguing that the high deposit for electoral candidacy — ¥3 million ($19,250) for parliament — is unconstitutional, in a bid to win some seats for the grassroots party.