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Can the US–Japan Climate Partnership lead decarbonisation in Asia?

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A man walks near a coal-fired power plant, Harbin, 27 November 2019 (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee).

In Brief

At the US–Japan Leaders’ Summit on 16 April, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga signed the US–Japan Climate Partnership on Ambition, Decarbonization, and Clean Energy. This climate partnership is expected to have a significantly positive impact on Japan's climate policy and decarbonisation efforts across Asia Pacific economies.


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The summit took place one week before Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate, where he committed to cutting US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50–52 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Suga announced that Japan would cut its GHG emissions to 46 per cent below 2013 levels by 2030, with the aim of achieving a 50 per cent reduction. Without the US–Japan Climate Partnership, Japan may not have set such an ambitious intermediate target, which was 77 per cent above its previous intermediate target of 26 per cent.

Before the collapse of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan was an important player in global climate policy. But the accident changed the entire climate policy landscape in Japan, which had previously relied heavily on nuclear energy. In 2019, nuclear power produced only 6.2 per cent of electricity, compared to approximately 30 per cent before the Fukushima disaster. Electricity generated in thermal power plants offset the electricity shortfall and GHG emissions peaked in 2013.

Japan has been falling behind other developed countries in the fight for decarbonisation. Japan’s reduction targets under the Paris Agreement were unambitious — committing to a carbon reduction of just 26 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050 from 2013 levels.

The Japanese government legislated a feed-in tariff scheme to encourage renewable energy usage. In 2019, about 18 per cent of electricity came from renewable sources, including large hydropower plants. Strengthened regulations following the Fukushima disaster make it difficult to bring more nuclear reactors back into service. The liberalisation of the retail electricity market also encouraged further construction of coal-fired power plants that could generate electricity at competitive prices or lower costs.

The government has encouraged the construction of energy efficient, coal-fired power plants to replace inefficient old plants, while promoting exports of coal-fired power plants to developing countries, saying this would help them in reducing emissions. These policies were criticised as being contradictory to global decarbonisation efforts.

Prime Minister Suga’s policy statement to the Japanese Diet in October 2020 was a turning point. He declared that ‘by 2050 Japan will aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero … to realise a carbon-neutral, decarbonised society’. This came a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge for China to achieve a peak in carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. Japan’s carbon-neutral target was incorporated into the Act on Promotion of Global Warming Countermeasures on 26 May.

Japan’s new zero-carbon target called for a renewed 2030 target. Initially, the Japanese government envisioned a 35 per cent reduction as a feasible target. The US–Japan Leaders’ Summit led Japan to commit to a cut of 46–50 per cent by 2030.

This target was not based on a feasibility analysis, but on Suga’s political decision to advance cooperation with the Biden administration. The Japanese government will need to radically change its climate strategy to achieve the new 2030 target — including moving away from reliance on coal-fired power plants. In April 2021, two plans for large-scale coal-fired power plants were cancelled, leaving no new projects of their kind in Japan. But it will also be necessary to retire a number of operating coal power plants to meet the 46 per cent target. The shortage of electricity should be addressed with renewables and the introduction of safer nuclear reactors, like small modular reactors.

The US–Japan Climate Partnership was a result of the US–Japan Leaders’ Summit, where the two countries renewed their alliance to stabilise the so-called Indo-Pacific region. The Biden administration wants to engage China more actively on climate issues, and Japan’s return to the climate coalition of developed countries may help expand cooperation on this front. From a national security perspective, Japan has moved closer to the US vision of the region.

The US–Japan Climate Partnership includes cooperation on accelerating decarbonised society transitions in Asia Pacific countries. The Japanese government also seems to be ending support for new overseas coal power projects in developing countries that have no plans for decarbonisation.

China is now the largest sponsor of coal-fired power plants in the developing world. Engaging with China through climate partnerships to help decarbonisation efforts in developing countries will be critical for the region to move towards carbon neutrality.

Satoshi Kurokawa is Professor of Environmental Law and Administrative Law at Waseda University.

2 responses to “Can the US–Japan Climate Partnership lead decarbonisation in Asia?”

  1. Despite the ‘stricter’ regulations on nuclear power plants issued after the Triple Disaster of 2011 in Fukushima the agency approving the reopening of plants has failed to follow its newer rules when two plant reopenings were approved. The feed in tariffs set up to allow for the use of renewable energy are controlled by the utility companies. The Union of Concerned Scientists has noted the smaller modular nuclear power plants still pose considerable risks.

    All of these suggest that the status quo is still dominating energy policy making in Japan. If this does not change, the country won’t meet Suga’s goals.

    • Thank you for your comment. The Japanese situation is slowly developing. The legislation of 26 May supports the regional decarbonization project. Last year a law endorsed community powers and VPPs for the renewables penetration. In 2017, the non-fossil electricity portfolio standard, which is a sort of RPS, was introduced. The goal is that 44% of the electricity sold by each distributor will be generated from non-fossil resources by 2030.
      Japan’s export industries have recently expressed concern about the EU’s carbon border adjustment policy. Some of them therefore support Japan’s carbon neutral policy. In addition, the price of renewable electricity has become competitive even in Japan today. So I expect that Japan will move away from the status quo in terms of energy policy.

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