Japan has set out its strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, and net zero emissions by the early years of the second half of this century. The strategy is not perfect and is in controversy with the actions of the corporates and the government. However, it is a welcome step and more pressure needs to be applied in order to make the strategy go further.

Extreme weather events necessitate action

Rescue efforts after Japan’s worst flood in 35 years

The torrential rain and subsequent floods during June-July 2018 in Japan led to catastrophic damage, with the Insurance Journal estimating that the total damage in this period totalled around $15 billion. The heatwave alone killed 1,032 people in July 2018. Such extreme weather events are set to become more and more common with increasing global warming. Sceptics can no longer deny the harmful effects of global warming, with the Meteorological Society of Japan’s study on the heatwave showing that it was conclusively a result of global warming. The study found that there was no chance that the heatwave, which reached heights of 41°C , could have possibly occurred in a climate unaffected by human activity.

Japan’s carbon-neutral goal explained

The advisory panel consisting of 10 members, headed by the nation’s International Cooperation Agency President Shinichi Kitaoka and commissioned by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, set out its recommendations earlier in April this year. However, whether the direction given by the panel can be considered to be recommendations is disputable. Emphasis was certainly given on encouraging Japan to work harder towards its goals of reducing GHG emissions by 80% by 2050 and achieving a decarbonised society, but little direction was given on how exactly to achieve it. The bulk of the advice consisted of the utilisation of technologies that aren’t yet ready. It called for the use of disruptive innovations such as the use of carbon capture and utilization technology by 2023, as well as the use of carbon capture and storage in the burning of coal by 2030. Such reliance on disruptive innovations has been referred to by the Renewable Energy Institute as “an excuse for not fully applying the technologies that are currently available” and “lacks efforts to thoroughly utilize existing technologies related to renewable energy and energy efficiency” in their proposal towards the Japanese government on how better to achieve Carbon-Neutral Japan by 2050.

Is Japan really serious about reaching its goals?

Despite the government signalling its intention to phase out carbon emission with an 80% goal by 2050 and a complete reduction not long after, the plans for the construction of multiple coal-fired power plants send a very different message. 

The proposed new coal plants pose to add up to 15 gigawatts of coal power. Mie Asaoka, President of the Kiko Network, proposed and cancelled coal plants as well as their capacity, stated that the “current path will lock in enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions long into the future,” further stating that if Japan continues in this direction without shifting away from the use of coal, Japan’s new plan will be “extremely inappropriate as a long-term strategy, and amount to nothing but a show,”. Rather than a reduction, the past few years have seen a rapid increase in the amount of electricity sourced from coal with World Bank data showing that the country had 32.7% of its energy sourced from coal in 2015, a 5.5% increase since 2010. 

Coal-fired power plants already under construction will not be stoped

Though Japan’s Ministry of the Environment did unveil plans in March earlier this year to oppose the construction of new power plants, and expansion of existing plants if they lacked measures to cut carbon dioxide emissions. However, this policy initiative only applies to new plans, and will not do anything to halt coal-fired power plants already under construction. Japan’s love affair with coal-power isn’t isolated to its own backyard either, as the nation has played a big part in funding new coal plants overseas. The country’s public financial institutions have funded at least 19 gigawatts of coal plants according to EndCoal’s global coal finance tracker, with the additional possibility of funding a further 11 gigawatts. Japan Bank for International Cooperation alone in the past three years has announced plans to provide up to $5.2 billion in financing coal-related projects. To provide some context on how far behind Japan is in its fight against coal-fired power, it is the only G-7 country still planning new coal-fired power stations, an act that goes directly against the IPCC’s report on global warming which states that the 1.5°C  isn’t possible with continued use of coal-fired power.

Nuclear energy and the future electricity mix of Japan

Furthermore, a large part of Japan’s plan to push towards using more clean energies is based on increasing the use of nuclear energy. The long-term strategy states that it aims to generate around 22% of the country’s electricity generation from nuclear power. However, the likelihood of achieving this target is slim given that only nine nuclear reactors are operational, whilst 30 would be required to accomplish its target. The aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster resulted in the shutdown of most of Japan’s nuclear reactor. The restart of these reactors seems unlikely given both the widespread public disapproval of nuclear power within Japan following the disaster, as well as the significant costs.

Can the financial sector save us?

Similar to the overreliance of future technologies to solve the state’s problems, a similar issue lies in the hopefulness and reliance on private capital to fund sustainable initiatives. The Japanese government hopes to promote green investment through improving the rate of disclosure of the environmental performance of companies, thereby prompting investors to invest more ethically, similar to other programmes worldwide such as the EU Commission’s non-financial reporting directive as well as France’s Article 173. 

Though ultimately, aligning private capital with sustainability initiatives is necessary given the vast amounts of funding required to achieve the necessary environmental objectives to be in line with both the country’s 2030 and 2050 goals. For example, Japan is the only advanced nation to lack a national electricity grid which is a significant hindrance to supplying renewable energy nationwide. A sharing of resources between the northeast and southwest would not be possible, therefore any shortfalls in renewable energy could not be made up by the other. However, to build this national electricity grid for Japan would require over 100 billion yen. The infrastructure and technologies required would cost far greater than what the public sector could come even close to funding, therefore it is necessary to attract private capital. The trend towards this is growing, not just in Japan but globally.

Signatories to the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) reached 2,232 in 2018, a 21% increase on the previous calendar year, with around $80 trillion total assets under management. The UK itself unveiled its new “Green Finance Strategy” earlier this month, which has the principal aim of aligning private capital with sustainable initiatives and thus calling upon the private sector to drive progress on climate change. 

It’s a common trend worldwide, with corporations, asset managers and institutional investors as a whole, realising more and more their role and power to be the prime drivers of global change. Though Japan’s strategy isn’t perfect as mentioned earlier, all progress is welcome, and we hope that this is just the first step the nation makes, in making its contribution in the fight against climate change.