By Aya Takada and Stephen Stapczynski
“Japan’s leadership seems to have become more sensitive to the country’s reputational standing in the global climate diplomatic arena,” Jane Nakano, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said by email.
The new policy could have far-reaching effects across the third-largest economy that is home to major auto and technology manufacturers. The country will need to transition much of its infrastructure to meet the new carbon targets as it remains deeply reliant on oil, coal and gas. Earlier this month, Japan started reviewing its basic energy plan with a focus on how to change its long-term power mix.
Using ammonia and hydrogen as alternatives to coal and liquefied natural gas will also be a part of the push, according to the government official, who asked not to be identified because the plan isn’t public. A spokeswoman at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the powerful ministry that oversees the country’s industry and energy sectors, wasn’t immediately able to comment.
There are signs industry and government are already looking at ways to replace dirtier generation with cleaner technologies. Japan’s offshore wind capacity could jump to 90 gigawatts by 2050, which is equivalent to 60% of the fossil fuel and nuclear facilities expected to close by that time, Shigehito Nakamura, managing director at the Japan Wind Power Association, said last month.
The commitment comes on the coattails of other efforts by the Japanese government to curb its carbon footprint, such as plans to shut more than 100 inefficient coal power plants and tightening rules that support sending the country’s coal technology overseas. Japan has faced increased scrutiny for policies that support coal-fired generation as investors and governments step up efforts to combat climate change.
While meeting the new emissions target could prove an uphill battle for Japan the transition may be easier than China’s recent pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2060. Emissions in China are still rising as the economy grows, whereas Japan has reported a decline in recent years.
To be sure, Japan has set lofty targets in the past its been unable to meet. For example, it still aims to derive as much as 22% of its power from nuclear reactors in 2030 but that effort has stalled amid public opposition and court challenges in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
More nuclear reactors must restart to meet the carbon neutral target by 2050, according to Satoshi Bizen, a spokesman for the country’s Federation of Electric Power Companies. Just nine of the country’s 33 operable reactors have restarted since the 2011 disaster and only two were generating power to the grid as of Thursday.
The nation’s private sector has already started a green charge. Jera Co., Japan’s biggest power producer, said earlier this month that it aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through shifting all of its coal plants to ammonia and increasing dependence on hydrogen, while Tokyo Gas Co., the nation’s top gas distributor, announced a similar goal last year.
The most likely to benefit from the policy shift are renewable energy developers, providers, and manufacturers, alongside energy storage and battery technology providers and makers of zero emission vehicles, according to Shin Furuno, a project manager with the Asia Investor Group on Climate Change.
Japan’s automakers are facing the once-in-a-generation shift to electrified vehicles and could profit from the new policies, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Tatsuo Yoshida. Toyota Motor Corp. already set a goal of reducing average new-vehicle CO2 emissions by 90% by 2050, compared to its 2010 global average.
Japan will also need to accelerate and intensify plans for renewables deployment, while natural gas will likely be a much smaller part of its energy balance by 2050, even with widespread carbon capture and sequestration, according to James Taverner, an IHS Markit analyst in London.
“Current policies do not point toward a net-zero future by 2050,” Taverner said. “The next basic energy plan, due in 2021, will likely need to show major revisions in long-term aims for the energy mix if Japan is to move closer towards this goal.”