Editorials

Revamp Japan's climate change commitment

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his disappointment with the outcome of the latest United Nations climate change conference, COP25, which closed Sunday in Madrid. There was no strong message requiring parties to the Paris Agreement to upgrade their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and talks on some of the rules for implementing the 2015 accord were deferred for another year. Also disappointing was Japan’s response to the increasingly serious challenges of climate change. It failed to show any readiness to revamp its own plans for cutting emissions or to review its policy of retaining coal as a major source of power despite international criticism because of the climate impact.

Prior to the conference, the U.N. Environment Programme issued a stern warning that if emissions of greenhouse gases continue at the current pace, global temperatures will rise by up to 3.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, causing catastrophic climate effects. The Paris Agreement set a target of containing the temperature increase within 2 degrees — and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees — to avert the devastating impact on the global climate. However, it has been made clear that the temperature rise will add up to 3.2 degrees even if all nations that signed the accord fulfill their voluntary plans to cut emissions. Therefore, the agreement requires the signatories to regularly upgrade their plans.

So far roughly 80 countries have indicated a willingness to cut their emissions beyond what they had pledged earlier. However, the world’s major emitters — including the United States, which has pulled out of the Paris accord, China, Russia, India and Japan — remain silent on upgrading their commitments to reduce emissions. The response of the major emitters remain slow even as the world’s sense of crisis over climate change grows as more frequent extreme weather conditions and the devastating damage they cause are linked to rising global temperatures. As the world’s fifth-largest emitter, Japan must fulfill its duties.

In his speech at the COP25 meeting, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi emphasized that Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions declined for the past five years in a row. However, Japan struggles to upgrade its emissions reduction plan or even to meet the pledge it has made. The government’s target is to reduce Japan’s emissions by 26 percent from 2013 levels by 2030, and it reportedly intends to retain this target when it submits its new Paris accord commitment next year. According to media reports, the government is unable to update its plan because the restart of nuclear power plants — which it views as key to reducing emissions as they do not emit greenhouse gases — continues to be slow, making it difficult to cut back on the use of fossil fuel-based energy.

In the 2030 energy mix under its Basic Energy Plan, the government set a target of nuclear energy accounting for 20 to 22 percent of the electricity supply, even as it vowed to minimize the nation’s dependence on nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. But by 2017, nuclear energy’s share of power supply was a mere 3 percent, compared with around 30 percent prior to the 2011 crisis.

When most nuclear power plants in Japan were idled after the Fukushima disaster, power companies turned to coal and natural gas to make up for the shortfall. And as restarts of nuclear plants continue to lag and the increase in renewable energy such as solar and wind — which the government also vowed to expand as much as possible — remains insufficient, Japan continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels — especially coal, which is cheaper than other fuel sources even though it emits more greenhouses gases. Today, coal accounts for more than 30 percent of the power supply in Japan, and power companies plan to build roughly 20 new coal-fired thermal power plants. The heavy dependence on fossil fuels is said to be putting the nation’s pledge to cut its emissions 26 percent by 2030 in doubt.

At the COP25 conference, Japan came under fire for using coal to meet its power demands and for providing aid to build new coal-fired power plants in developing countries — even as many other industrialized economies pledge to phase out coal power generation. Koizumi said he took the U.N. chief Guterres’ call for phasing out coal power “as a message aimed at Japan,” that he “recognizes the global criticism” of Japan’s coal policy and that more action needs to be taken — without indicating that Tokyo is ready to review its coal policy.

Whether Japan changes its dependence on coal, the government must consider if relying on nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and hesitating to upgrade its emissions reduction plan because the restart of idled nuclear plants is lagging — is the right path forward in its effort to combat climate change.