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A summer of typhoons and flooding has put the issues of severe weather, global warming and climate change mitigation domestically and internationally back on top of Japan’s political agenda.

But with the country’s current and long-term energy strategy still dependent on fossil fuels, especially coal-fired plants, its hesitation to wean itself off of nuclear power and embrace renewable energy, a wait-and-see attitude about future technical innovations, and a reliance on voluntary industrial measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, questions remain as to whether Japan will be a climate leader or a climate laggard.

In a Sept. 23 op-ed for the Financial Times, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for more international cooperation to tackle climate change, saying that “all countries must engage with the same level of urgency.”

“Climate change can be life-threatening to all generations, be it the elderly or the young and in developed and developing countries alike,” Abe said. “The problem is exacerbating more quickly than we expected. We must take more robust actions. And swiftly.”

That means there is a need to reduce the use of fossil fuel as well as cutting the costs and improving the reliability of renewable energy, Abe added.

Japan, as host of next year’s Group of 20 leaders summit in Osaka, will make climate change, along with marine pollution and disaster risk reduction, items for discussion. Addressing these issues are “critical pillars” for achieving the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, Abe said.

Japan’s international pledge under the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change was to reduce its emissions 26 percent by 2030 compared with 2013 levels. The Paris accord aims to keep the global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees.

But Japan’s pledge has been criticized by domestic and international environmental groups as unambitious. A November 2017 report on Japan’s climate change efforts by Kiko Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which claims 3 million members worldwide, charged that if all countries had the same level of ambition, global temperatures would rise 3 to 4 degrees by the end of this century. It also suggested the government needs to enact tougher legal measures on carbon emitters.

“Japan can do more to ensure it is on track to meet and exceed its 2030 target. Many of Japan’s domestic emission reduction programs are voluntary,” the report noted.

Abe’s op-ed came just two months after his Cabinet adopted a strategic energy plan with separate goals for 2030 and 2050. Over the next dozen years, Japan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent. This will be done primarily by laying the foundations for becoming more energy efficient by turning to renewable energies, lowering dependency on nuclear power generation as much as possible, boosting the use of hydrogen power and promoting effective uses of fossil fuels.

For 2050, the goal is to reduce greenhouse gases 80 percent by having renewable energies become major power sources. One way the government aims to do that is by “fading out” the use of inefficient coal and “shifting” to cleaner natural gas while keeping nuclear power as an option.

Yukari Takamura, a professor at the Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science at the University of Tokyo Institutes for Advanced Study, is part of a government-appointed committee of experts to look at long-term growth based on the Paris agreement.

“Abe is well aware that financial institutions and investors have become more keen and vigilant about how a company would analyze and manage physical risks of climate change impacts and transitional risks toward decarbonizing (the) world,” she said. “He is also quite aware that a rising amount of money has now flowed to expanding (the) clean energy market. For these reasons, climate action is considered necessary to increase the value of Japanese companies in the market.”

Hisayo Takada, deputy program director at Greenpeace Japan, says the nation’s domestic plans need to be reversed in order to make a positive contribution to the Paris agreement goal. She said it is Japanese businesses, especially finance-related businesses, that seem to be taking the lead in getting out of coal.

“Recently, we’ve seen more steps of climate action from Japanese companies than from the government,” Takada said. “Within the last few months, the major banks and life insurance companies have all come out with revised policies that aim to reduce their funding and exposure to coal.

“While many of these policies are still not strong enough to be in line with the Paris agreement, it is clear the finance industry in Japan has started to act to protect themselves from the risk of stranded assets, now widely recognized in the global financial markets. As the host for next year’s G20 meeting, Japan’s government would do well to take the same direction,” she added.

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