In 1997, the Japanese city of Kyoto hosted a UN climate conference that set the world on the path to tackling the climate crisis. But despite the historic importance of the Kyoto Protocol agreement, Japan is no longer the poster child of climate action.
At this weekend's meeting of G7 climate change and energy ministers in Sapporo, Japan — a prelude to the G7 summit in Hiroshima from May 19 —the nation is being asked to quicken its energy transition.
With the G7 group committing in May 2022 to decarbonize near 100% of electricity by 2035, and to end fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, can Japan guide these goals to fruition?
What's Japan's stance on fossil fuels?
Japan, the world's fifth-biggest CO2 emitter, has recently committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, but also wants to extend the lifetime of both nuclear and fossil fuel power plants. The plan is to co-fire coal and gas plants with lower emission ammonia and hydrogen.
Climate campaigners Oil Change International note that ammonia and hydrogen will be mostly produced with fossil fuels, and warn that Japan is exporting the polluting technology across Asia.
Japan included the scheme in the draft communique for the meeting of G7 climate ministers. But the UK, France and Canada have since demanded the language be changed so ammonia and hydrogen burning is only recommended when in line with the 1.5C target for temperature rise, reported the Financial Times.
Meanwhile, though Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, Yasutoshi Nishimura, stated that G7 ministers agree "we must accelerate decarbonization" to avoid the worse impacts of global heating, he also said that fossil gas will be a necessary transition fuel for at least 10-15 years.
Could nuclear energy make a comeback — despite the 2011 Fukushima disaster?
In 2021, only around 6% of Japan's energy came from nuclear power, reflecting the near total shutdown of the industry following the meltdown at Fukushima in 2011 when capacity was around 30%.
While fossil fuels have largely plugged this energy gap, Japan is reversing course on its planned nuclear phase-out, the government calling nuclear a "highly effective energy source for decarbonization," noted the Renewable Energy Institute (REI), a Japanese climate think tank.
Japan plans to increase nuclear capacity to 20-22% of the national energy mix. The government has proposed building a new nuclear model reactor in addition to extending the life of existing plants.
Moreover, the construction of expensive "next-generation" nuclear reactors cannot likely begin until the 2030s and could run into 2040s, setting back decarbonization goals.
REI this week published a proposal on a "2035 Energy Mix" that concludes that at least 80% of Japan's electricity in 2035 can come from renewable energy sources.
"We do not need to rely on and can phase out nuclear as Germany is planning," said Yuri Okubo, a senior researcher at REI.
Can Japan lead the way on decarbonization at the G7?
Japan's commitment to both gas and coal-fired power, and its massive ongoing fossil fuel investments globally, has caused campaigners to question its leadership.
"The Japanese government is working to expand the use of fossil fuels across Asia under the guise of 'decarbonization'," wrote clean energy campaigners, Oil Change International, in a report on Japan's energy policy. "The Japanese strategy would block the transition to clean energy, worsen the climate crisis, undermine energy security, and harm communities and ecosystems."
Analysis from independent energy think tank, Ember, shows that Japan is on a pathway to produce only around half the share of renewable energy as the EU by 2030.
Meanwhile, Japan supported wording in a draft communique calling for increased investments in LNG (liquefied natural gas) and natural gas.
This push was subsequently deleted from the draft, after pushback from Italy, Germany, France and the EU, Reuters reported.
Natural gas can only "bridge the [energy] gap in a manner consistent with our climate objectives and commitments," states the new draft.
What does Japan's energy mix look like?
Fossil fuels make up over three-quarters of Japan's energy mix, with coal power providing around 31% of Japan's energy, notes Evan Gach, program coordinator at Kiko Network, a Japanese environmental NGO.
As an OECD country, Japan should be phasing out its coal-fired power plants by 2030 to meet the Paris targets of limiting warming to 1.5C. However, the country continues to build new coal power plants, Gach noted.
"Japan is currently on track to have 32% coal power and 30% LNG in 2031," he explained.
Japan is investing heavily in other so-called abatement technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
"But these are generally unproven, inefficient and costly solutions, which divert funds away from lower cost and lower risk renewables," said Jonathan Sims, a senior analyst at UK-based climate think tank, Carbon Tracker.
Could Japan's new 'Green Transformation Policy' help meet the Paris targets?
Japan's government approved a new climate strategy titled the "GX: Green Transformation Policy" in February, which included a new carbon pricing policy.
Labeled a "missed opportunity" by the Renewable Energy Institute, "the scheme is just too little, too late," said senior researcher Yuri Okubo.
Under the policy, a voluntary, uncapped emissions trading scheme will be introduced in 2026, which, according to Okubo, is about one-tenth of what is required by the International Energy Agency for reaching net zero.
In 2033, a mandatory system will be introduced, but only for the power sector — a deficiency that animated 303 non-state actors to release a statement this week calling on the government to introduce effective carbon pricing during the G7 summit.
Kiko Network's Gach called Japan's GX climate policy "an economic growth strategy" that fails to outline renewable energy expansion or energy conservation measures.
"It is important that the proceeds from any carbon pricing initiative in Japan are directed towards accelerating the deployment of renewables and battery storage," said Jonathan Sims. "Solar and wind can deliver quicker and lower cost power system decarbonization."
Edited by: Sarah Steffen