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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged that his country will become carbon neutral by 2050. “Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth,” he said in October, “I declare we will aim to realize a decarbonized society.”

While this promise is both welcome and ambitious, Japan’s pledge comes nearly a year after the European Union, which in 2019 proposed a climate law that would create a legally binding target of net zero carbon by 2050. Further, despite its green rhetoric, Japan’s climate change record at home and abroad has been mixed at best. To accomplish Suga’s ambitious goals, Japan will need to learn from other countries and pursue major political and economic reforms.

Until 2011, Japan was on track to use nuclear energy to provide more than half of its electricity by around 2040. The Japanese public was not strongly opposed to the use and expansion of the fleet of 54 nuclear power plants, which generated some 30% of Japanese electricity. But the March 11, 2011, triple disasters — a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, 14-meter-tall tsunami and meltdowns at three of the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s nuclear reactors — pushed Japan away from nuclear power and back to fossil fuels. The government created a new nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Regulation Agency, which unlike previous watchdogs has actually stopped plants from opening and forced others to shut down because of seismic risks.

Only nine of Japan’s nuclear plants are currently in operation as the decontamination and clean up work continues. Lawsuits from local residents to halt restarts have been more successful after the 3/11 disasters, and some local mayors and governors, whose consent is necessary for restarts, have taken decidedly anti-nuclear stances. Scandals involving several of the utilities, including a decades-old bribery scandal involving Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), have tarnished the industry further.

Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party has put out mixed signals about its intent to restart individual plants and increase nuclear energy production in Japan. The former head of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) stated that Japan would need to “promote the resumption of nuclear power plants while keeping in mind their safety and also consider building new plants that incorporate new technologies.” Yet other LDP politicians have publicly stated that no nuclear power plants will be proposed or constructed. Meeting a carbon neutral goal will likely require higher levels of nuclear energy than the public and courts are currently willing to accept.

Japan has regularly funded or provided technical assistance for the construction of fossil fuel power plants in other countries, particularly those in Southeast Asia, to the tune of more than $16 billion over the past decade. Critics have noticed the double standards in Japan’s approach in which Japanese public financing supports plants that provide 10 or even 40 times more pollution in Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh than would be allowed in Japan. In late summer of 2020, Japan pledged to reduce financing for the dirtiest overseas coal plants, but it has left open continuing support for more efficient ones.

At home, Japan’s carbon emissions have only recently begun to decline after being virtually flat since the 1990s. Japan emitted 1.36 billion tons of greenhouse gas in 2018, down about 4% from 2017 and more than 10% beneath its peak emission year of 2013. With 140 coal fired plants in operation across Japan, and new gas and oil plants under construction, fossil fuels make up some 80% of the energy mix. A little more than 20% of Japanese power is produced by wind, hydro, biomass and solar. This number needs to rise dramatically for Japan to achieve carbon neutrality.

How can Japan achieve its climate change objectives? A critical ingredient for success will be to guard against policy reversals under future governments that are less ambitious or dedicated to continued progress. An important model Japan can learn from is the U.K. Climate Change Act, the first domestic law in the world that created legally-binding emissions reduction targets. By creating greater certainty about the government’s commitment to emissions reductions, such a law will accelerate investments by the private sector. Japan also needs to revise its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, eliminating embarrassing accounting gimmicks — such as setting the base year to 2013 instead of 1990 — that inflate its headline reduction numbers and create a false perception that Japan is doing more than it actually is.

Yet, even a well-designed law can be overturned by future governments skeptical of climate change. It is critical to foster a broad, societal and political consensus behind Japan’s climate change goals. Ambitious government investments in green technologies and industries today will create future supporters to counter the influence of traditional opponents tied to fossil fuels. If Toyota and Honda increasingly specialize in hydrogen and electric vehicles, they will lobby less aggressively for government support of traditional, gasoline vehicles.

The Suga government should also reach across the aisle to achieve broad political consensus behind his climate change goals. Japan suffered an important climate change set back in the 2000s when the opposition Democratic Party of Japan made populist appeals by promising to reduce gasoline taxes and highway tolls, compelling the LDP to follow suit. Japanese citizens are already supportive of climate change mitigation, but they are sensitive to pocketbook issues like energy taxes and electricity prices.

Climate change is a marathon, not a sprint: Japan will make greater progress if these issues are not politicized and all major parties agree on emissions reduction as a common goal.

Daniel P. Aldrich is director of the Security and Resilience Studies program and professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University. Phillip Y. Lipscy is an associate professor in the department of political science and Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

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