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Japan’s Chance to Lead on Climate Change

Words: Darah Phillip
Pictures: Brad Helmink

The United Nations’ panel on climate change released a report on October 8 indicating that nations need to take swift and decisive measures to prevent a climate crisis in coming decades. The report comes just two weeks after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kicked off his third and final term with an op-ed urging the international community to work urgently to mitigate climate change and its negative impacts.

Abe’s ability to act and institutionalize clean energy initiatives may be the most important legacy that he can leave behind as prime minister. Yet, to do this, he will need to reject burning coal as a source of energy in Japan and abroad, and work to develop and share Japanese technologies and best practices with other nations.

To take the lead in mitigating climate change, Japan will need to make haste with reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and drastically reduce its use of coal as a source of energy. The UN notes that in order to prevent a global warming crisis, the percentage of global energy provided by coal must be reduced to 2% or lower. As such, Abe needs to prioritize reducing Japan’s use and financial support of coal, something that wasn’t mentioned in his Financial Times op-ed.

Japan, as the world’s 4th largest contributor of greenhouse gases, needs to set more ambitious targets to reduce its use of coal. While this critique has been offered by numerous commentators throughout the year and in response to Abe’s op-ed, this new report gives added urgency to the prompts. After the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 disrupted national trust in nuclear energy and spiked energy costs, coal usage increased from 23% of Japan’s energy mix that year to 31% in 2015. In July’s revised Basic Energy Plan, the government set a target that 26% of energy come from coal by 2030.

For Abe’s vision of Japan as a global leader in climate change initiatives to come to fruition, Japan will need to put its money where its mouth is and end its financing of coal projects abroad.

Japan also will need to stop funding coal projects abroad. The Natural Resources Defense Council placed Japan as the second largest G20 financer of coal projects abroad from 2013 to 2016 (China is the largest), with $10 billion devoted to projects in Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and elsewhere. This is more than three times the amount ($3 billion) that Japan spent financing renewables abroad during that same period.

The Japanese government has emphasized that it only exports the cleanest coal technologies, offering importers a more environmentally-friendly coal plant than they might get from other exporters. Yet, according to NRDC’s “Power Shift: Shifting G20 International Public Finance from Coal to Renewables,” the plants financed by Japan in other countries “pose much higher health and environmental risks than the coal plants located in Japan because of the less stringent environmental standards in the host countries.” The report, published in December 2017, urges G20 countries to immediately cease international public financing of coal power plants. For Abe’s vision of Japan as a global leader in climate change initiatives to come to fruition, Japan will need to put its money where its mouth is and end its financing of coal projects abroad. Japan should divert that money to projects that support renewable and other clean technologies.

Despite these challenges, Japan has the potential to take the lead in perfecting and disseminating best practices in fuel-efficient transportation, renewable energy technologies, and private sector climate change activism. For example, Abe’s op-ed alludes to Japan’s energy-efficient mass transit technology, which can and should be further developed and exported internationally as part of Japan’s infrastructure investment initiatives throughout Southeast Asia and other regions. Japan’s planned collaboration with China on infrastructure development projects in other countries may be one potential avenue for these projects, allowing Japan to promote clean energy and its original research and development.

In addition, the mobilization of Japan’s private sector in favor of climate action may offer a model of non-state, corporate activism that can be replicated in other countries. The main example of this is the Japan Climate Initiative, which brings together Japanese companies, non-government organizations, and local governments to collaborate and exchange ideas to reduce Japan’s carbon emissions. JCI formed in response to the United States’ “We Are Still In” coalition which has a similar mission. As Japan takes the lead in promoting climate action globally, it should highlight non-governmental initiatives such as JCI and encourage other countries to involve their civil societies and corporate sectors in climate change actions.

The UN’s report is the latest to indicate that the risk of a climate crisis requires decisive action by global leaders. Now that Abe has declared his commitment to the cause, it is time for him to lead Japan away from burning coal and towards increased investments in clean energy technologies that can be shared with other countries. These steps are crucial for mitigating the global impact of climate change. If Abe is up for the task, then his successes in climate action can become an enduring part of his legacy.

Darah Phillip is a Research Assistant at Sasakawa USA, where she supports research programs on US-Japan relations and Sasakawa USA’s tabletop exercises.

Darah Phillip

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