Is Japan’s green recovery plan enough to hit net zero by 2050?

Wind farm - Samuel Barbosa da Cunha

Is Japan’s green recovery plan enough to hit net zero by 2050?

The world has been rocked by the IPCC’s recent climate change report, which issues stark warnings that the world is fast running out of time in the fight against global warming.

As it stands, the Paris Agreement’s initial goals are not sufficient to tackle the speed with which the climate is changing. The global temperature registers 1.1 degrees C warmer than pre-industrial levels. Initial emissions goals were planned with the intent to keep this rise below 1.5 degrees by 2050.

Targets need to be substantially brought forward by Governments around the world. According to the IPCC report, we have already collectively passed several tipping points, and we need to make drastic changes right now. With all of this in mind, let’s look at Japan’s stance on clean energy, climate change and emissions targets.

How did COVID-19 impact Japan’s green recovery?

Japan is home to the world’s third largest economy and, just like in most other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed growth. But what about its CO2 emissions?

In the first six months of 2020, Japan’s emissions fell by 7.5% compared with the first half of 2019. It’s important to note that there was already a downward trend for greenhouse gas (GHG) before the pandemic, but the intermittent lockdowns that have happened since COVID-19 arrived have also contributed to their falling.

Between 2013 and 2018, Japan’s emissions fell around 2.5% each year. In 2018, they dropped by 3.9%, thanks to a boost in renewables and a variety of other factors. Fast forward to the first half of last year, and stats from The Climate Action Tracker shows that Japan’s emission reduction was largely down to:

  • The aviation sector, which was 29% down from the same time period in 2019.
  • The industrial sector, which was 12% down.
  • The ground transport sector, which was down by 8%.

On the other hand, emissions reductions from the electricity sector in Japan stood at less than 3%.

What’s in the green recovery plan?

As Japan battles through a vicious second wave, measures are being planned to recover from COVID-19. A number of these can be categorised under a green recovery.

As part of this, the Government plans to revise Japan’s Basic Energy Plan and include a range of short- and medium-term plans to reduce emissions. Revisions to the Basic Energy Plan include:

  • Retire all of the outdated and inefficient coal plants by 2030.
  • Restrict coal power finance given overseas to just those countries committed to decarbonisation in the long term.

This does leave questions about building high-efficiency coal fired power plants, as no measures are restricting them. How this revision fits into long term decarbonisation isn’t clear.

The average lifespan of plants like these is 46 years, and given the fact that the whole world must end reliance on coal by 2040 to have any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals, it appears to contradict a country that is outwardly pledging to scrap coal.

However, it is still at the very least a shift in attitude towards coal and can be read as the Government belatedly conceding that the future isn’t in fossil fuels. There are now plans to increase offshore wind power by installing a total capacity of 10GW by 2030.

Boost in clean energy investment

Along with the reduction in fossil fuels from 56% to 41%, the Basic Energy Plan also shows that Japan aims to increase its clean energy usage by 40% over the next nine years.

By 2030, clean energy in Japan will make up around 38% of the country’s overall power generation. The previous target was 22-24%, so this latest move is significantly higher. Japan’s target for nuclear energy remains the same at between 20% and 22%, and the much-vaunted new fuel sources such as ammonia and hydrogen have just a 1% target.

To show just how much of a leap this is, Japan’s energy breakdown before the pandemic in 2019 was fossil fuels at 76%, nuclear power at 6% and clean energy at 18%.

The omission of any change in the target for nuclear suggests that the sector remains stalled after the fallout from the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The draft plan does say that while Japan wants to reduce its usage of nuclear power, but it is still important as an energy source. The country also plans to continue its nuclear fuel reprocessing cycle, which converts nuclear fuel to plutonium.

Basic Energy Plan aims to achieve recent emissions targets

In April 2021, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged an emissions reduction of 46% compared with levels 2012. This is an upgrade from the previous target of 26%, aiming to hit carbon zero by 2050. The Prime Minister said they intend Japan to match the EU’s targets, while China pledges to be carbon zero by 2060.

Given that the 2050 target will necessitate drastic changes in fuel usage, it’s likely that we will see more nuclear plans restarted. Fukushima has slowed down the shift towards getting rid of fossil fuels in Japan markedly, as public sentiment is still negative.

Of the 54 reactors in operation at the Fukushima disaster, 24 have been decommissioned, leaving just nine currently online. While the draft doesn’t explicitly talk about any new nuclear reactors, the industry calls for them will likely increase.

Even though it’s yet to be ratified, the news of the draft energy plan has garnered criticism from Greenpeace Japan. According to the Associated Press France, Greenpeace Programme director Husayo Takada says the plan doesn’t go far enough. He says: “The revision of [Japan’s] Basic Energy Plan is a pivotal point to demonstrate the country’s political will to achieve net zero by 2050. However, the draft plan is disappointing as it is not anywhere near sufficient to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target.”

Corporate and government collaboration is the way forward.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has also announced that all gas-powered vehicles will be phased out over the next 15 years as part of Japan’s green growth strategy. However, this plan does mean that hybrids will still be allowed.

Reuters reports that Japan will increase hydrogen consumption by up to three million tonnes by 2030. By 2050 this will hit 20 million tonnes, compared with just 200 measured in 2017. This will go towards power generation and transportation around the country.

We can see an example of the shift towards hydrogen with the new waste-to-hydrogen facility now up and running near Tokyo Bay. The facility is at the Sunamachi Water Reclamation Centre and can process one tonne of dried sewage sludge to produce up to 50kg of hydrogen every day. This is enough hydrogen to fuel ten cars or 25 e-bikes running on fuel cell batteries.

The centre collaborates with researchers at the Tokyo University of Science, CHIYODA Kenko, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, TODA Corporation and the Japan Blue Energy Co (JBEC). With tech developed by JBEC and commercialised globally by Ways 2H, it’s the perfect example of the kind of collaboration that Japan and the rest of the world need in the fight against climate change.