Japan’s ambitious carbon target sparks bureaucratic panic

When Yoshihide Suga committed to reduce Japan’s carbon emissions by 2030, the prime minister received a warm welcome from world leaders at Joe Biden’s climate summit. But his announcement sparked panic in the Japanese bureaucracy.

Policy making in Japan normally involves a slow and painful process of consensus building. This time, however, Suga imposed the target – a reduction of 46% from 2013 levels by 2030 – with no consultation, little political debate and no analysis to suggest this is even possible.

Officials are now rushing to turn the new goal into concrete policy, with experts openly doubting its credibility and warning that the Japanese public has not been prepared for the sacrifices it will demand.

In comments that were seen as symbolic of the government’s lack of planning, Shinjiro Koizumi, the Minister of the Environment, drew criticism and derision on social media by telling a TV show that the figure of 46% had just “floated”.

“The government is in complete confusion,” said a member of the advisory committee tasked with developing the national energy strategy. “Japan has done nothing to prepare for this.”

Suga has made climate change and the promise of “green growth” a centerpiece of his government since taking over. to take place Last September. In October, he pledged that Japan would achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Yoshihide Suga imposed the target without political debate or consultation © Yuichi Yamazaki / Reuters

But the new goal has caused consternation because it is so immediate. Japan had previously pledged a 26 percent reduction from 2013 levels by 2030. Raising that percentage to 46 percent requires a significant additional reduction in emissions in just nine years.

Taishi Sugiyama, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, said the new goal was only achievable if Japan accepted a heavy blow to its economy. A 1 percent reduction in emissions costs about 1 tn yen ($ 9.2 billion) per year, he said, so the 20 percentage point reduction would cost 20 thousand yen.

This equates to around 3.5% of gross domestic product, implying that the carbon target would absorb much of the improvement in living standards that Japan’s low-growth economy can expect by 2030.

Takeo Kikkawa, a professor at the International University of Japan and a member of the government energy council, said the 46% target was welcome in itself. “The problem is, the targets before were so low, it’s just not realistic,” he said.

For the 2030 target, Japan should consider purchasing emission permits from other countries, Kikkawa said. But, he added, “we can accelerate and achieve the 2050 net zero target.”

Japan’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions have been hampered by the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. After the merger of three reactors, Japan took the rest of its nuclear fleet offline and burned coal and fuel oil instead.

This led Japan to shift its accounting year for emission reductions to 2013 in the Paris Agreement, instead of 1990 under the Kyoto Protocol, giving it a higher baseline from which one to work on.

The easiest way to cut emissions would be to restart Japanese nuclear reactors. “But even if they restart them all, they can’t cut emissions enough,” Sugiyama said.

Nuclear power is also deeply unpopular with the Japanese public. The government is reluctant to push for restart or discuss replacing existing reactors at the end of their working life.

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Environmentalists want a sharp increase in renewables, which accounted for around 6% of Japan’s energy supply in 2019. Renewable production has nearly tripled since the Fukushima disaster, but Japan’s mountainous geography makes it difficult to build large parks solar and wind power.

Many experts therefore place their hopes in renewable energy imports in the form of ammonia or hydrogen, produced from renewable energies in the countries like Australia, then burned using Japan’s existing natural gas and coal infrastructure. However, such renewable fuel supplies do not yet exist.

Most of Japan’s emissions policies have worked through regulations on utility companies, as well as feed-in tariffs for solar power. The ruling Liberal Democrats are debating the use of an emissions trading or carbon tax, but powerful Japanese industrialists oppose policies that would make energy more expensive.

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