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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s long-awaited pledge Monday to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 offers hope in the uphill fight against global warming, but climate scientists and advocates fear the plan may lack the means and vision to actually realize decarbonization, much less kindle the national response needed to combat the climate crisis.

“With the economy and the environment situated as two pillars of the country’s growth, my administration will make the utmost effort to achieve a green society,” Suga said during a policy speech at the Diet on Monday. “It needs to be understood that global warming countermeasures could transform the economy and foster growth, not hinder it.”

Observers say Japan’s decision was likely influenced by recent climate pledges from China and the United States. In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that Beijing would aim to become carbon neutral by 2060. In the U.S., former vice president and presidential candidate Joe Biden put forward a plan that he says ensures the country will achieve a “100% clean energy economy” and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In Suga’s policy speech, however, no mechanism was proposed for monitoring progress in reducing emissions, nor did he reference the Paris Agreement — a global pact that stipulates a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 and calls for swift action to limit average global warming above preindustrial levels to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Experts say the omission of key elements from Suga’s policy speech, as well as the push to bolster divisive nuclear energy and invest in carbon recycling — a technology they say won’t exist for years, if not decades — could derail the country’s climate efforts when time and options are running out.

Most of the country’s nuclear power plants are idle following triple meltdowns at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture after the Great East Japan Earthquake, in March 2011, and subsequent tsunami.

“It’s impossible to reconcile the gap between what Suga promised and what the country is doing,” said Takako Momoi, director of the Tokyo branch of Kiko Network, a Japanese climate NGO.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives his policy speech during an extraordinary session at the Lower House of the Diet in Tokyo on Monday. | AFP-JIJI
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives his policy speech during an extraordinary session at the Lower House of the Diet in Tokyo on Monday. | AFP-JIJI

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.

And yet, a plan is still underway to construct 22 new coal-fired power plants across 17 sites over the next five years. The government is also offering support to Japanese companies looking to build coal-fired power plants overseas.

“The announcement is a step forward, but the contents are questionable,” said Takayoshi Yokoyama of 350 Japan, the local branch of a global climate NGO. “The goal should be to fundamentally change the country’s energy portfolio, not to feign progress.”

The real test, Yokoyama said, will be the trade ministry’s triennial discussions, during which officials will re-examine the country’s energy mix and its climate change countermeasures. The subcommittee is set to announce revisions by June 2021.

Climate scientists say the tone and manner in which those discussions are held will be influenced by the prime minister’s announcement. But a majority of the subcommittee’s members are outspoken advocates for nuclear energy and represent the business interests of the fossil fuel industry, said Jusen Asuka, a professor at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Environmental Studies.

“The subcommittee lacks the climate scientists and researchers needed to have a serious discussion on climate change,” he said.

In part due to the economic slump caused by the ongoing pandemic, the country has been willfully slow to bolster emission reduction goals.

In part due to the economic slump caused by the ongoing pandemic, the country has been willfully slow to bolster emission reduction goals. | REUTERS
In part due to the economic slump caused by the ongoing pandemic, the country has been willfully slow to bolster emission reduction goals. | REUTERS

In March, the Environment Ministry announced Japan would neither raise nor revise its nationally determined contribution (NDC) that reflects the country’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

Japan had promised to reduce emissions from 2013 levels by 26% over the next decade. This falls far short of the Paris Agreement, which calls for a 45% reduction by 2030 and net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to prevent a global temperature increase above preindustrial levels of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This year, member nations were supposed to announce their revised NDCs at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP for short. The conference had been scheduled for November, but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COP26, which will be held in Glasgow in November 2021, will be Japan’s next and possibly last chance to take the lead on the world stage in the uphill fight against the climate crisis.

Japan is the world’s third largest economy and fifth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. A pledge by the country to decarbonize would create wider ripples that could turn into waves and inspire a sea change, not just in the public and private sectors but among its people as well.

“At last, the debate has shifted from if Japan will take action to when and how,” said Seita Emori, deputy director of the Center for Global Environmental Research at the National Institute for Environmental Studies.

Under its current plan, the central government aims to create an energy mix by 2030 of which 30% is coal-fired power, 20-22% is nuclear and 22-24% is renewable.

But without a drastic plan to back Suga’s announcement on achieving net zero carbon emissions, or a mechanism to monitor progress, it’s just a front, according to Teruyuki Ohno, executive director of Renewable Energy Institute (REI) think tank.

In July, REI proposed an alternative mix in which 45% is renewable, carbon dioxide emissions are halved and the country takes a big leap closer to honoring the Paris Agreement.

“If the right steps are taken, and with the appropriate amount of urgency, decarbonization by 2050 is possible,” he said. “This is only a starting point.”

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