The world’s third-largest economy is aiming to cut greenhouse gases to zero and become a carbon-neutral society by 2050, said Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The move represents a major shift in the country’s position on climate change, following weaker commitments questioned by environmental organizations.
“We will bring the total amount of greenhouse gas (emitted by Japan) to net-zero by 2050, meaning carbon neutral,” Suga said in his first policy address to parliament since taking office. “I declare we will aim to realize a decarbonized society,” he added, to applause from lawmakers.
Japan had previously aimed at achieving an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 followed by carbon neutrality “as soon as possible”, likely sometime in the second half of the century. This has been repeatedly criticized by climate activists as vague and unambitious. The Paris Agreement asks all countries to achieve decarbonization by 2050.
Takaharu Niimi, a climate change specialist at the Japan Research Institute, told AFP that Suga’s announcement was in line with an international move towards stronger commitments on the environment. “Considering the international trend, I think the time is right for Japan to declare the plan,” Niimi told AFP.
The country was under pressure to clarify its long-term ambitions, especially after carbon neutrality announcements earlier this year by China and South Korea. The shift puts Japan in line with its neighboring countries.
Suga didn’t give precise details on how Japan, still heavily reliant on coal, will achieve the goal but said the technology would be essential. He said the key will be innovation, citing examples including next-generation solar batteries. The country will push for more renewable energy and nuclear power, he added.
Japan was the sixth-largest contributor to global greenhouse emissions in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency. Following the meltdown in Fukushima, after which the nuclear reactors were shut down, the country has struggled to reduce its carbon emissions. Its reliance on fossil fuels only increased since then.
The country has regularly received criticism for continuing to build coal-fired plants at home, as well as financing projects to build them abroad, especially in Southeast Asia. Japan has 140 coal-fired power plants under operation, which provide a third of its total electricity generation.
The carbon neutrality goal will likely mean a big shift in the country’s energy plan, currently under review. The most recent plan, from 2018, aims to have between 22% to 24% of the country’s energy needs met by renewable sources including wind and solar by 2030. This has been described as unambitious by energy experts.
Greenpeace Japan welcomed Suga’s commitment to carbon neutrality but said there should be no role in the country’s future for nuclear power.
“Nearly 10 years on from Fukushima we are still facing the disastrous consequences of nuclear power, and this radioactive legacy has made clear that nuclear energy has no place in a green, sustainable future,” the group’s executive director, Sam Annesley, said in a statement.