TOKYO — Japan will be carbon neutral by 2050, its prime minister said on Monday, making an ambitious pledge to sharply accelerate the country’s global warming targets, even as it plans to build more than a dozen new coal-burning power plants in the coming years.
The prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, laid out the goal during his first major policy speech since taking office in September, when Japan’s longest-serving leader, Shinzo Abe, abruptly resigned. The announcement came just weeks after China, Japan’s regional rival, said it would reduce its net carbon emissions to zero by 2060.
Addressing Japan’s Parliament, Mr. Suga called for the country to “be carbon neutral in 2050,” a declaration that drew loud applause from lawmakers. Achieving that goal will be good not only for the world, he said, but also for Japan’s economy and global standing.
“Taking an aggressive approach to global warming will bring about a transformation in our industrial structure and economic system that will lead to big growth” in the economy, he said, answering critics who have warned of the economic consequences.
Japan’s new climate pledge is a major upgrade of its previous commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, and necessary if the world hopes to keep a global temperature rise well below 2 degrees, as called for in the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Japan is the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It had previously said it would go carbon neutral “at the earliest possible date,” vowing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Japan now joins China, the largest polluter, and the European Union in promising to bring their net carbon emissions down to zero. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, made his country’s pledge last month during the United Nations General Assembly.
The two announcements from Asia’s largest economies reinforced just how much of an outlier the United States, the world’s second-largest carbon emitter, has become after President Trump moved in 2017 to pull the country out of the Paris agreement. Joseph R. Biden Jr., his challenger in the presidential election, has vowed to restore the United States’ participation in the accord.
Japan’s decision was most likely driven by a combination of domestic and external political pressures, said Takeshi Kuramochi, a climate policy researcher at the NewClimate Institute in Germany.
While environmental groups have long argued that the country needed to speed up its progress on reducing emissions, momentum toward the move has been building in recent years, “especially in business and finance sectors,” Mr. Kuramochi said.
Mr. Suga probably also felt it was important not to cede leadership on the issue to China, he added. As a developed nation, Mr. Kuramochi said, it would be “somewhat embarrassing for Japan to have a net zero emissions timeline later than China.”
It is not clear whether Mr. Suga’s commitment is feasible, and he offered few specifics about how Japan would reach its goal, saying only that he would harness the power of “innovation” and “regulatory reform” to transform the country’s energy production and usage.
Achieving the new timeline will require a major overhaul of Japan’s infrastructure, which is highly dependent on carbon dioxide-producing fossil fuels. The country has made steady progress in reducing its emissions, but still generated 1.06 billion tons of the gas in the one-year period that ended in March 2019, placing it among the top 10 per capita emitters.
“When you look at Japan as an economy, there’s a lot of considerations that have to go into formulating this ambitious goal,” said Jane Nakano, a senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It would require a much deeper look into the resources that Japan has, perhaps the way that different sectors have been operating,” she said, adding that “not just the government, but many business entities and industrial stakeholders” would also need to commit to achieving net zero by 2050.
By the early 2000s, Japan had made substantial progress in curbing carbon dioxide emissions through the use of nuclear power. But the meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011 led to a widespread shutdown of the country’s energy-producing reactors, which had generated roughly a third of Japan’s total power supply. Only a handful of the plants have since restarted.
Short on energy sources, Japan decided to reinvest in coal. It has planned or is in the process of building 17 new coal-burning power plants, even as other major economies are moving away from the power source.
Japan currently plans to reduce — but not eliminate — its dependence on coal, decreasing its contribution to the country’s electricity production from 32 percent in 2018 to 26 percent by 2030, partly by shutting down inefficient plants.
The country has also vowed to end contentious government subsidies for the export of coal-fired power technology to developing nations, where the use of coal for electricity continues to rise. Japan is currently supporting three such projects and says it will consider financing more only in “exceptional” cases.
Further efforts to decrease Japan’s domestic commitment to coal will likely meet powerful resistance from Japanese industry, which is still heavily dependent on the fuel. Still, Mr. Suga’s announcement may cause the country to rethink its commitment to coal in favor of cleaner, more diverse energy sources.
Japan is already considering a substantial increase in its supply of wind and solar power, and it is also looking at newer, less-established technologies, such as plants that burn ammonia or hydrogen.
Restarting nuclear power plants may also be on the table, despite widespread public resistance to the idea. In his speech on Monday, Mr. Suga said that Japan would continue to develop nuclear power with “maximum priority on safety,” a remark that drew a round of boos and hisses from members of Parliament.
Some parts of the country will have a head start on Mr. Suga’s overall climate pledge. Movement toward the new goal had already started on the local level, where 150 municipal governments have pledged to be carbon neutral by midcentury.
Major corporations such as Toyota and Sony have committed to similar timelines for zeroing out their emissions.
But even if Japan achieves its goal, it will not by itself be enough to halt or even slow the current trend of global warming, a goal that requires a global effort.
Japan is already feeling the consequences of climate change. Rising temperatures across the country have contributed to deadly heat waves. And scientists say that global warming also contributed to the size and intensity of the devastating typhoons that struck the country last year.
Preventing a climate catastrophe will require “a transformation of the energy system that has underwritten modern society,” said Kentaro Tamura, director of Climate and Energy Area at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Kanagawa, Japan.
“There’s no question that having to make such a drastic change in the extremely short period of just 30 years is very difficult,” he said.
But, he added, “I’m optimistic.”
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