Japan has two paths laid before it when the pandemic subsides and the country tries to stabilize its battered economy.
One leads back to old habits: a stubborn dependence on fossil fuels, renewed investment in coal-fired power and complacent environmental policy. The other leads to a brighter future, one in which the country purposefully hastens its transition to renewable energy, and the money set aside to revive the fossil fuel industry is instead invested in sustainable infrastructure.
The latter — otherwise known as a “green recovery” — might be the nation’s best and last chance to kick-start the momentum necessary to eliminate carbon emissions within the next three decades. Experts fear the window of opportunity is narrowing quickly.
“Japan must balance economic revival with environmental sustainability,” said Akio Takemoto, program head of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability at the United Nations University in Tokyo, and former director of the environment ministry’s International Strategy on Climate Change. “The potential is there, but the problem lies in the country’s policy.”
Due to the economy stalling, Japan has seen a slight drop in the use of fossil fuels and an improvement in air and water pollution.
The concentration of carbon dioxide emissions in Tokyo rose by 8 parts per million (ppm) in April 2016, but in April this year it rose by 3 ppm, according to a report by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
The same report also showed temporary dips in greenhouse gas emissions in parts of China, Europe and the United States.
But heightened energy consumption is common in the aftermath of a recession.
According to a report published in April by the International Monetary Fund, Japan’s economy is expected to contract by 5.8 percent this year in a global downturn the IMF called the “worst recession since the Great Depression.”
While emissions were lower during a nationwide state of emergency in Japan declared from early April to late May, local businesses and public traffic have bounced back.
Since the coronavirus first emerged earlier this year, news of the climate crisis has been largely relegated from the front pages of Japanese media. Activists remain hesitant to hold public demonstrations and a majority of the government’s time and money has been directed at the ongoing pandemic.
But during that time, encouraging progress appears to have been made by way of the country’s policy on energy and plastic pollution.
In July, the government announced it would deactivate more than 100 domestic low-efficiency coal-fired power plants by 2030 and stop supporting the export of coal-fired power. The same month, it began requiring retail stores to charge customers for plastic shopping bags.
As demand grows for responsible and sustainable energy consumption, the central government’s efforts might encourage the reduction of plastic waste and coal-fired power.
But those policies are full of loopholes, said Teruyuki Ohno, executive director of the Renewable Energy Institute and former director general of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Environment.
The government announced it would terminate a slew of low-efficiency power plants, Ohno explained, but a plan is still underway to construct 22 new coal-fired power plants across 17 sites over the next five years.
Select retail stores are now charging ¥3 to ¥5 per plastic bag, but they can opt for “bioplastic” bags — which contain up to 75 percent plastic — that are free of charge. Furthermore, plastic bags only account for an estimated two percent of the 9 million tons of plastic waste generated by the country every year.
Lastly, the trade ministry has said it will not support the export of coal power to foreign countries, and yet it will not condemn the construction of Vun Ang 2, a coal-fired power plant in Vietnam funded largely by Japanese corporations.
Together, Mitsubishi Corporation and Chugoku Electric Power Co. account for 60 percent of investment in the project. In June, a South Korean think tank warned that financial investment in the project will yield “negative profitability” and could subject Japanese investors to legal action from stakeholders.
“2020 was supposed to be the last year to turn things around and begin the process of decarbonization,” Ohno said. “If economic recovery and energy consumption in the wake of the pandemic goes in the wrong direction, that time will be lost along with any chance of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.”
The silver lining
Japan has doled out big money to help the economy survive, and will need to keep doing so after the pandemic subsides for it to recover.
Therein lies an opportunity: the chance to invest in wind and solar power; retrofit energy efficient homes and office buildings; normalize electric vehicles; improve transportation, roads and other facets of public infrastructure and urge the private sector being bailed out by taxpayer money to divest from fossil fuels, slash carbon emissions and reimagine their business models.
COVID-19 has presented the world with a clear shot at beginning the hard work necessary to avert a climate crisis.
In April, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, pledged $800 billion for a European Green Deal she said would be the EU’s “motor for the recovery.”
In Japan, however, the transition to renewable energy is obstructed by a monopolistic power grid that experts say might be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a green recovery.
Nearly 75 percent of electricity in the capital is provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) according to a study published in July by Greenpeace Japan and Friends of Earth Japan, among other nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.
The report also found that small or new energy providers were often blocked, pushed out or undermined by bigger companies with greater access to cheap electricity often produced through coal-fired power.
“This wouldn’t be a problem if big energy companies were using renewable energy but that’s just not the case,” said Akiko Yoshida of FoE Japan. “As long as big electric companies continue to control the energy sector with fossil fuels, shifting to renewable energy will be difficult.”
Another report conducted nationwide in 2019 found similar results. But this year’s findings, Yoshida said, showed that Tokyo’s power grid was beginning to change.
The system for the production and delivery of electricity began its transformation in 2000, when a new law made it possible to buy electricity from companies other than big regional providers like Tepco or Kansai Electric Power Co.
When the law first took effect 20 years ago, “special high capacity” structures such as factories, office buildings and department stores were allowed to choose their electricity provider. They were joined by midsize buildings and factories in 2004, and small businesses and individual households in 2016.
Liberalization of the country’s power grid gives people — from private companies to urban households — the freedom to choose for themselves where they get their energy from.
Recent studies show an increase in the number of households that have switched to providers generating electricity from renewable sources. That trend, Yoshida said, is key to the country’s greater transition to renewable energy.
“Shifting to renewable energy is something we can all do,” she said. “It’s something we all should do.”
The Ministry of the Environment held its first working group on Sept. 1 to revisit its Global Warming Countermeasures Plan.
During the meeting, which was attended remotely by a number of officials from the environment ministry and the trade ministry, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi pressed for further collaboration between the two government bodies.
The nation’s climate change policy is predetermined by its energy portfolio, which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry (METI).
Even if the environment ministry did mount a campaign to reform the country’s energy portfolio or tackle the climate crisis in any serious way, experts say the success of such an effort is at the mercy of the trade ministry.
METI is expected to revisit its Strategic Energy Plan next year some time before June 2021.
In the current iteration of its plan, the government aims to create an energy mix by 2030 of which 30 percent is coal-fired power, 20 percent to 22 percent is nuclear and 22 percent to 24 percent is renewable.
In August, the Renewable Energy Institute put forward an alternative plan, one in which 45 percent is renewable, carbon dioxide emissions are halved and the country takes a big leap closer to honoring the Paris Agreement.
‘Fossil of the Day’
Experts say there’s great potential for wind and solar energy in Japan, but the rigid nature of its power grids stands in the way of a shift to renewable energy.
Regardless, the government remains willfully stagnant in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
In March, the Environment Ministry quietly announced it would neither raise nor revise its nationally determined contribution, or NDC, the numerical value of a country’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions.
Japan has promised to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent from 2013 levels over the next decade.
But the country’s pledge falls far short of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls for a 45 percent reduction compared to preindustrial levels in carbon emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050 to prevent a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
A landmark report published in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that average global warming of 2 degrees could push the planet past multiple tipping points and cause, among other things, the Antarctic ice sheets to melt, coral reefs to die and millions of people to flee in search of habitable land.
Researchers say a number of these tipping points will be triggered even by an increase of 1.5 degrees.
In March, the World Meteorological Organization announced that average global temperatures in 2019 had already risen by 1.1 degrees.
Last year, each nation had been asked to revise and resubmit their NDCs along with a comprehensive plan to fight the climate crisis at a U.N. climate conference in November this year — COP26 for short — but the event was postponed due to the pandemic.
At COP25, which was held in Madrid last December, Japan was roundly criticized for its self-proclaimed “coal addiction,” leading one climate NPO to go as far as to bestow upon the country a satirical “Fossil of the Day” award.
Leading up to the conference last year, observers cautiously hoped that Japan would reconsider its ways. Following that disappointment, they looked forward to this year’s conference as a second and possibly last chance.
After this year’s conference was delayed, it was decided COP26 would be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021.
The clock is still ticking.
Fridays For Future Japan — the local branch of a global climate advocacy group co-founded in 2018 by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg — submitted a statement to different government bodies in August, calling on the country to raise its NDC and take swift action to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The group published a petition on Aug. 21 as well, calling for further action, which has since garnered more than 22,000 signatures.
Climate activists, experts and researchers say Japan should raise its NDC to 45 percent to align with the Paris Agreement.
Meanwhile, extreme weather in Japan continues to get worse.
Typhoon Hagibis, which made landfall in October last year on the Izu Peninsula and made its way north, was the deadliest typhoon to strike mainland Japan in four decades.
In July this year, record-breaking heavy rain over Kyushu in Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures took the lives of 77 people and destroyed or damaged more than 15,000 buildings.
This year, in August alone, Tokyo’s infamous summer heat has claimed the lives of 170 residents.
“It’s a mistake to think Japan is detached from what’s happening around the world,” said FFF Japan member Yuki Watanabe. “Nobody is safe from the climate crisis.”