Japan became the latest major economy to publicly announce it aims to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050, a goal made during the Japanese version of the U.S. State of the Union by newly minted prime minister Suga Yoshihide on October 26. Previously committing itself to an 80 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Japan updated its target. The commitment necessitates an ambitious pace and scope of transformation in the country’s energy and industrial structures.
The country’s power sector, which depends on fossil fuels for over 70 percent of supply, is the leading source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by Japan today. Despite achieving a 24 percent reduction in CO2 emissions between 2013 and 2018, the sector remains responsible for about half of the country’s CO2 emissions, followed by the transportation sector (19 percent), the industrial sector (18 percent), and the commercial and residential sector (10 percent). How much and how quickly the country can transform the power supply mix is, therefore, crucial for Japan’s success in meeting the net zero emissions by 2050.
The new pledge also necessitates a broader buy-in from the business community beyond the power sector. For example, between 2013 and 2018, carbon emissions by Japan’s industrial sector reduced 8 percent, while those by the transportation sector reduced 15 percent. There clearly is a long way to go, but there is a foundation to build upon. Under the auspices of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), over 100 private companies and business associations from the industrial, commercial, transportation, and energy sectors have developed or adopted low-carbon action plans through 2030. These plans generally seek to maximize the use of best available technologies as well as expand renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, not only along the manufacturing process, but also in business operation. Furthermore, the Japan Climate Leaders’ Partnership—a coalition of over 150 companies—has been calling for greater adoption of a 2050 carbon neutrality pledge in the corporate world by promoting global initiatives like RE100 within Japan.
Japanese companies with a 2050 net-zero pledge include JERA, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, and Toyota. In particular, success by JERA, which is the largest electric power generating company in Japan and the largest company that imports liquefied natural gas in the world, would have a significant effect on the national success. Meanwhile, a few others with a 2050 goal have a reduction target at 80 percent, presumably to conform to the earlier commitment by the Japanese government. Notably, associations from some carbon intensive sectors, such as steel and cement making, also have developed detailed long-term carbon reduction pathways even if they lack a specific zero-carbon commitment. The national pledge will likely compel many to update their existing carbon reduction action plans and strategies.
In his speech, Prime Minister Suga stressed the role of innovation in enabling such a transformation and called for Japan to emerge as a leader in the global clean energy industry.
Carbon neutrality goals present a set of economic, political, and societal challenges to any country. So the right question is not whether Japan will be able to deliver on its commitment by 2050, but how widely the vision can garner the public support as the pledge urges a diverse set of stakeholders to reimagine the future of its economy in unison.
Japan has begun formulating its triennial Basic Energy Plan, due out in 2021. Under the existing plan, issued in 2018, natural gas and coal would account for 63 percent of the country’s electricity supply in 2030, followed by renewables for 22-24 percent, and nuclear energy for 20-22 percent. According to the latest study by the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, the country’s CO2 emissions from the electricity sector under the reference scenario (which generally comports to the existing energy plan) will decrease from about 1,080 million tons (mt) today, to 940 mt in 2030, and to 738 mt in 2050. Interestingly, under the report’s advanced technologies scenario, the country can further reduce the emissions level to 483 mt in 2050 if the share of fossil fuel-based power supply decreases from 73 percent today to 16 percent in 2050 and if the shares of solar and wind grow, respectively, from 6 percent to 18 percent (3.4 percent annually) and from 0.7 percent to 20 percent (10.7 percent annually). The share of nuclear energy will also need to rise from 6.2 percent today to 22 percent in 2050.
The carbon neutrality vision clearly demands a substantial revision of the current outlook. The zero-emissions pledge will likely propel the new Basic Energy Plan to double down on renewables and energy efficiency while also promoting hydrogen and carbon capture and recycle technologies. Beyond that, how extensively the country’s coal policy will be revised, as noted in the prime minister’s speech, and whether the urgency of decarbonization can help the government overcome lingering opposition to nuclear energy are some of the questions that warrant close attention. Additionally, how much the carbon neutrality pledge can mobilize needed investment in low-emission technology development and deployment, and how the climate commitment may affect Japan’s resource diplomacy, which has traditionally valued strong ties with countries with hydrocarbon resource wealth, remains to be seen.