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When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote in the pages of the FT last year, he urged the world to act “quickly” to tackle climate change and to take “stronger action”.
“Climate change can put the lives of all generations at risk,” he wrote. “The problem is getting worse faster than expected.
As Japan prepares to host the G20 summit later this month, the country’s commitment to climate action is about to be tested. The summit will set the tone for the world’s largest economies at a time when global carbon emissions are rising. New national climate targets are expected later this year as part of the Paris climate agreement.
At previous G20 summits, the role of the United States – which under the Trump administration plans to withdraw from the Paris climate pact – has been highlighted. This year, a more in-depth review will focus on Japan’s climate record.
Japan is one of the only developed countries still building new coal-fired power plants. It is a major funder of coal projects internationally. This month, he adopted a plan to become “carbon neutral” by the end of the century, without giving a specific date. It has kept its 2050 decarbonisation target unchanged, aiming for an 80% reduction in emissions by then.
Ahead of the G20 summit in Tokyo, a growing number of Japanese companies called for more renewable energy. A letter signed this month by tech multinational Fujitsu, conglomerate Sony, construction company Daiwa House and a dozen others urged the government to adopt a target of 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030.
Environmental groups have been very critical of Japanese policies. They argue that there is no plan to wean the country from its dependence on charcoal. “It’s a pretty unfortunate path,” says Kimiko Hirata, international director of the Kiko Network, an environmental group. “Japan is lagging behind other countries in terms of renewable energy,” she adds, noting that 17 coal-fired power plants are under construction. “Current [climate policy] the situation in Japan has become quite bad.
A year ago, a heat wave that swept across the country killing more than 1,000 people highlighted the deadly impacts of climate change, which is contributing to more frequent and severe heat waves around the world.
Yet, as the G20 summit approached, Japan was criticized for its climate record. Coal-fired power plants are a key source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.
This is a big turnaround for a country once synonymous with climate action, after having lent its name to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 and the subsequent suspension of Japan’s nuclear fleet, coal and gas consumption skyrocketed to help fill the void left by nuclear shutdowns.
Since 2012, around fifty new coal-fired power plants are planned in Japan, according to data from Kiko Network. Although 13 have been canceled, 13 more are already in operation.
With the future of nuclear power still uncertain – many reactors are slated to reopen, but this has been repeatedly delayed – coal is expected to continue to be part of Japan’s energy supply for decades. It now supplies about a third of Japan’s electricity and is expected to produce a quarter by 2030, according to official forecasts.
International pressure to move away from coal has increased. A report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year found that coal use is set to drop to zero by 2050, in order to limit global warming to 1.5 ° C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Amid a global wave of ‘no coal’ policies, the UK plans to phase out coal by 2025. France plans to shut down its coal-fired power plants by 2022. In Japan, some companies are shutting down. are committed not to finance new coal-fired power plants, including Mitsubishi and Marubeni. The government itself has not given a date for phasing out coal.
“After the nuclear accident, Japan could have taken many different paths,” said Han Chen, head of international policy at NRDC, an American environmental group. “Instead of investing in low-carbon growth, Japan has contented itself with importing tons of coal and liquefied natural gas.” Estimates suggest that government-backed funding for international coal projects totaled around $ 15 billion between 2013 and 2018, according to the NRDC.
Many environmental activists say the G20 could be a powerful voice for climate policy, but they don’t expect it to be so this year. Japan’s draft G20 communiqué, they note, omits the terms “global warming” and “decarbonization” and, compared to previous releases, downplays the Paris climate agreement.
“I am quite pessimistic,” says Ms. Hirata.
“Because Japan [has] tried to avoid dealing with the problem of climate change, ”she said,“ that cannot send any strong signals to the outside world ”.