In his first policy speech at the Diet the other day, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Japan would go carbon-neutral by 2050. Clearly, he is aware of the need to put an end to Japan’s present notoriety as the world’s fifth largest carbon emitter and bring its climate record down in tune with the demand of the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees centigrade from the pre-industrial level and limit it to 1.5 degree only.
Support for the Paris agreement is growing the world over. So far, over 120 countries, including South Korea, have promised to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. India is believed to be on track towards keeping to its nationally determined commitments to halt runaway global warming. The other day, speaking at the virtual Climate Action Summit 2020 to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India had already reduced its emission intensity by 21% over 2005 levels, while its pledge was to a 33%-35% reduction by 2030.
In 2019, the European Union, except Poland, vowed to become carbon neutral by 2050. In September this year, China, the world’s second-largest economy and largest Co2 emitter, promised to attain carbon neutrality by 2060. China today aims to eliminate some ten billion tons of annual CO2 emissions, nearly a third of the global total, from 2030 onward .
Pertinently, one could be optimistic about China today. It accounts for more than one-third of the world’s installed wind and solar capacity. At the end of 2019, China accounted for nearly half of all electric vehicles.
In the United States, the world’s largest economy and the second-biggest CO2 emitter, its President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr looks committed to restoring the country’s participation in the Paris agreement. During his presidential election campaign, Biden vowed that, if elected, he would re-enter the Paris deal and host a world summit on saving climate within the first hundred days of his administration. In June 2017, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement. Biden has set the target of net zero carbon emission by 2050. The importance he attaches to this can be gauged from his naming former US Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy. Climate change happened to be Kerry’s signature issue when he served as US President Barack Obama’s second Secretary of State. Kerry was the chief US negotiator who had helped broker and sign the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Also, Suga must be aware of Japan’s need to contain carbon emission for domestic reasons. Global warming has been amongst the key causes behind heat waves and typhoons across Japan from time to time.
It is to be seen how Suga realises this goal. There are many hurdles on the way. Japan is the world’s third largest economy and has huge energy needs. Internally, it produces just 9% of its needs. It relies heavily on imports of fossil fuels, oil, coal and natural gas. Japan generated 1.06 billion tons of the gas in the one-year period ending March 2019.
Nuclear energy offers Japan little hope today. The meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011, led to a widespread shutdown of Japan’s nuclear reactors. These reactors are yet to be revived and made functional. There is a considerable domestic opposition to developing nuclear power plants. When Suga said in his Diet speech that Japan would continue to develop nuclear power with “maximum priority on safety”, he drew a round of boos and hisses from the members of the House.
One hopes it would not be very hard for Suga to cross such hurdles. There are signs of optimism around. Japan today sees hydrogen as a new source of energy. It is eyeing wind and solar power at a large scale. The goal of Japan’s Basic Energy Plan, formulated in 2018, to make renewable energy account for 22% to 24% of its overall power output by 2030 has been achieved. Renewable energy accounted for 23.1% of Japan’s total energy generation mix in the first half of 2020.
Japan has decided to end investment in the construction of new coal-fired thermal plants both at home and overseas. Steel production accounts for 47.6% of its industrial carbon dioxide emissions. Its manufacturers could replace blast furnaces with electric-arc furnaces. Automobile manufacturers could promote electric vehicles. At the end of 2019, there were just about 300,000 electric vehicles—less than 1% of total market share—on the road in Japan.
Abhijitha Singh, an alumnus of the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, is specializing in Japanese studies.