Can the US-Japan climate partnership drive decarbonization in Asia? – Analysis – Eurasia Review

By Satoshi Kurokawa *

At the US-Japan summit of heads of state and government on April 16, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga signed the US-Japan climate partnership for ambition, decarbonization and clean energy. This climate partnership is expected to have a significant positive impact on Japan’s climate policy and decarbonization efforts in the economies of the Asia-Pacific region.

The summit came a week before Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate, at which he pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030 compared to 2005. Suga announced that Japan will cut its greenhouse gas emissions 46 percent below 2013 levels by 2030, with the aim of achieving a 50 percent reduction. Without the US-Japan climate partnership, Japan might not have set such an ambitious interim target, 77 percent above its previous interim target of 26 percent.

Before the collapse of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan was a major 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 just 6.2 percent of electricity, compared to about 30 percent before the Fukushima disaster. Electricity from thermal power plants compensated for the electricity gap and greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2013.

Japan has fallen behind other developed countries in the struggle to decarbonise. Japan’s reduction targets under the Paris Agreement were not ambitious – it committed itself to a CO2 reduction of only 26 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 compared to 2013 levels.

The Japanese government has issued a feed-in tariff to promote the use of renewable energies. In 2019, around 18 percent of electricity came from renewable sources, including large hydropower plants. Tighter regulations after the Fukushima disaster make it more difficult to restart more nuclear reactors. Liberalization of the electricity retail market also encouraged the continued construction of coal-fired power plants that could generate electricity at competitive prices or at lower costs.

The government has encouraged the construction of energy-efficient coal-fired power plants to replace inefficient old power plants while encouraging the export of coal-fired power plants to developing countries as this would help them reduce emissions. This policy has been criticized as contradicting global decarbonization efforts.

Prime Minister Suga’s policy statement to the Japanese state parliament in October 2020 was a turning point. He stated that “Japan will strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 … to achieve a carbon-neutral, decarbonized society”. It did so a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping promised that China would peak in CO2 emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. Japan’s carbon neutral target was incorporated into the Act to Promote Countermeasures Against Global Warming on May 26th.

Japan’s new zero-carbon target called for a renewed target for 2030. Originally, the Japanese government had envisaged a reduction of 35 percent as a feasible target. The US-Japan summit of heads of state and government led Japan to commit to a 46 to 50 percent cut by 2030.

This goal was not based on a feasibility study, but on Suga’s political decision to promote cooperation with the Biden government. The Japanese government must radically change its climate strategy to meet the new 2030 target – including moving away from reliance on coal-fired power plants. In April 2021, two plans for large coal-fired power plants were canceled, leaving no new projects of this type in Japan. In order to achieve the 46 percent target, however, some operating coal-fired power plants will also have to be shut down. The electricity shortage should be addressed with renewable energies and the introduction of safer nuclear reactors, such as small modular reactors.

The climate partnership between the USA and Japan was the result of the summit meeting of heads of state and government between the USA and Japan, at which the two countries renewed their alliance to stabilize the so-called Indo-Pacific region. The Biden government wants to involve China more actively on climate issues, and Japan’s return to the industrialized world climate coalition could help expand cooperation on that front. From a national security perspective, Japan has moved closer to the US vision of the region.

The US-Japan climate partnership involves working together to accelerate the transition to a decarbonized society in the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. The Japanese government also appears to be ending support for new overseas coal-fired power plants in developing countries that have no decarbonization plans.

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

* About the author: Satoshi Kurokawa is Professor of Environmental Law and Administrative Law at Waseda University.

Source: This article was published by the East Asia Forum

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